According to the Wall St Analyst Mary Meeker, mobile represents a new wave of computing, on a par with previous technological cycles such as the desktop PC revolution. She predicts that within the next five years more users will connect to the Internet over mobile devices than desktop PCs”. Her most recent report points out that whilst some companies will “Win Big” from mobile, others will get left behind and will “Wonder What Just Happened”.
Already many Casino and gaming operators, affiliate networks, service providers, brands and marketers have begun to move into mobile. However, as fast as the industry moves, it is hard to keep up with the new trends in mobile, which is developing at an incredible rate. Just as the casino sector got to grips with the mobile web, along came the iphone and applications wave. Now, just as the industry is beginning to understand the iphone along comes the ipad – another potentially explosive new platform and form factor – taking the mobile concept to the PC, rather than the PC concept to mobile.
The landgrab for the mobile casino market has already begun. The likes of Spin3, Playtech and others have already deployed sophisticated platforms covering a range of games types. Spin3 has a large number of brands active on its mobile platform including Ladbrokes, Jackpot City, All Slots Casino and Wild Jack Mobile Casino. The mobile casino brand mfortune has begun advertising on television whilst a recent study by Comscore suggested that 7.6% of Smartphone users play mobile casino games. Major brands from the sports betting world such as William Hill are also ramping up promotion of their mobile services. Affiliate networks such as Income Access, Brightshare, Euro Partners and Affiliates United have all begun recruiting for mobile casinos. At mobyaffiliates.com, our directory of mobile affiliate programs, we have found that the market is dominated by the casino sector – which has rapidly overtaken other areas such as ringtones.
However, success so far has been patchy to say the least and many players are yet to see any positive return from their investment in mobile. Mobile is in many ways much more complex than the PC environment that the online casino sector is used to. Instead of catering to a handful of different browsers and one dominant operating system (Windows), the mobile channel is extremely fragmented across different operating systems, browsers and handsets. It is notable that mfortune, one of the more successful mobile casino brands is operated by a team from outside of the online sector.
In order to succeed on mobile and make get a return on investment what issues do existing industry players and new entrants have to consider on mobile?
What handsets and platforms to target?
The main complexity that mobile brings is the issue of dealing with multiple operating systems and hundreds of devices. This brings additional costs and operational overhead in terms of adapting services for each particular device. The major operating systems at present are iphone, android, Symbian, Windows Mobile and Blackberry, but there are also niche platforms such as Palm, Maemo and Mobile Linux – just to increase the complexity further.
As a result, an increasingly common approach for mobile service providers is to focus on iphone-only development. The iphone has a much lower installed base of handsets than other platforms such as Symbian (used by Nokia) however, it is the most commercially attractive option for many mobile service providers due to the type of users (early adopters) and the high rates of usage for apps and mobile internet. However, this approach leaves a large proportion of the potential market inaccessible, and for some services, including casino, an iphone audience may not be the most commercially attractive. In addition, Apple’s iphone App Store is heavily controlled, which means that many casino services are unable to get listed. However, Darren Pollard of Mayfair Mobile Gaming states that the situation is more nuanced than a blanket ban, “Although there is a generally accepted rule that Apple will not approve and/or support real-money gambling Apps on its iTunes App Store, these stores are run in regionally specific silos, so gambling operators should look to building relationships with influential people in these value chains in countries where gambling is legally and socially acceptable such as the United Kingdom.”
Android, Google’s mobile operating system, has many of the advantages of the iphone in terms of usability but is a much more open platform. There are a wide range of independent app stores for android which will host all types of applications and the Android Market (Google’s app store) is much less controlled that the Apple app store. A wide range of devices are now being produced by a range of manufacturers using Android which means that it will attract a wider group of users than the high-priced iphone. Although android doesn’t have as much market traction as the iphone it is catching up fast and some commentators expect it to become the dominant mobile operating system over time.
As a result a number of casino services are now focusing on a “dual platform” strategy that focuses on both iphone and Android. In terms of the other platforms, Blackberry suffers from a commercial point of view from the fact that the devices are often linked to company accounts which means that they are not always able to install new applications or take payments for games. However, with Blackberry increasingly moving into the consumer market it is also becoming a potentially attractive operating system to target. Symbian, used by Nokia has the largest base of handsets, but suffers from version fragmentation making it harder to develop applications. However, given the potential scale of the market, Symbian is still worth considering if you are willing to deal with the head-aches involved in working with the platform.
Focus on the mobile web – not apps?
An alternative to choosing one or two operating systems or taking on the high costs of serving multiple OS is to focus on developing for the mobile web rather than applications. Creating a mobile web site using HTML creates a platform-neutral service which can be used across iphone, Android, Symbian and all types of handsets. In addition, a mobile web ite does not have to be accepted onto an app store which provides more flexibility for the casino sector on some platforms and in some markets. Whilst a mobile-web based service cannot handle some of the rich interaction that can be provided using an application it is an adequate platform for a large number of services and is only increasing in power as mobile handset browsers improve and new web standards emerge. For example, the new HTML 5 standard promises to allow much richer mobile web experiences on platforms including the iphone, and is potentially where gaming platform companies should concentrate their efforts.
User education is key
what about the ipad and other emerging mobile platforms?
Increasingly, mobile internet is becoming more about other types of devices than the mobile handset. For a while now a number of publishers and developers have found that web-enabled games devices such as the PSP account for a significant proportion of their mobile traffic. In addition, the ipod touch has become a major source of traffic and usage for mobile web sites and “iphone” applications.
Now it appears that another category of web-enabled tablet devices might be the next big thing on mobile after the successful launch of the Apple’s ipad. Already, the ipad has sold over half a million units and a range of similar devices are set to be released by competitors. Potentially, Apple could have created another device class for the mobile web, which could fit very well with casino and other gaming services, perhaps more so than the mobile handset. Some casino brands will already be developing specific web sites and applications for the ipad in order to take advantage of this new opportunity. Whilst existing websites or apps designed for the iphone do work on the ipad it is likely that specially adapted services will be most successful in the long run.
So, whilst mobile does represent a big new market, operators and other industry players need to clearly understand the channel before making a play. The right choices need to be made about which platforms and devices to target, and the most appropriate approach to product development. The mobile platform keeps evolving at a rapid pace so ongoing investment is required to keep up to date with the latest opportunities. However, given the growth of the platform, for those who succeed, the rewards will be enormous.
James Coops is the founder of mobyaffiliates.com, which helps merchants and networks to recruit affiliates for the mobile channel and enables affiliates to find the best mobile programs to make money on mobile. He also runs mjelly.com – a directory of mobile sites and applications that helps publishers and developers to get traffic to their mobile services.