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Sony Ericsson Thinks Different about Cell Phones

Sony Ericsson’s position as one of the first handset makers to provide and encourage open platforms and the development of add-on applications for its phones gives the company a strong position against competitors who opt for primarily closed platforms (iPhone, anyone?).

FastCompany.com sat down with Marie-Louise Olsson, Communication Manager for the Sony Ericsson Developer Program, who was responsible for launching Sony Ericsson Developer World and building up its marketing and PR, as well as strengthening mobile content for Sony Ericsson overall.

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FC: What prompted the launch of Sony Ericsson Developer World?

Olsson: Sony Ericsson Developer World was created to make sure that Sony Ericsson, a 50:50 joint venture between Sony Corporation and Ericsson AB, had attractive content and applications to support a more personalized user experience. We have seen an evolution over the past few years from just being a hardware company that talks about product features to actually talking about the user experience, asking, “What can you do with your phone apart from just making phone calls and sending text messages?” Working with the global developer community and with content creators is very important to make sure that that happens.

FC: Sony Ericsson offered the first open software platform UIQ-enabled phone back in 2002, before Developer World was even created. How long has Sony Ericsson been promoting open development? (Note: UIQ Technology was established in 1999 and is based on the Symbian operating system. It is one of the primary platforms used in the development and licensing of open software applications for mobile phones.)

Olsson: When we talk about open platforms, we mean that the phones are able to download content and software from the third party developer community. Sony Ericsson has been focusing on two major technologies to enable this. One is UIQ, which we first implemented with the P800 smartphone back in 2002, and the other technology is Java. We now have 3 phones based on Java Platform 8, which offers a lot of new features — applications that handle payment transactions, location-based applications, applications that use an accelerometer or a sensor. We have two phones that come preloaded with a game called Marble Madness so when you tilt the phone the game feels your movement and the marble goes in the direction that you want. That all came from third party developers — we seldom develop anything ourselves in terms of content that goes on the phones, we source it from other parties.

In addition to these two major programming technologies all of our phones also support other types of content download, like ringtones, themes, wallpapers, background images, that sort of entertainment and cool content that you can do.

FC: What is the process for working with third-party developers, how do they go about creating and submitting new applications?

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Olsson: We have a free community membership, that you have to sign up for if you want to subscribe to our monthly developer newsletter. Membership is also required to post comments in our discussion forums or to use the Wikis, but other than that you’re free to download docs and tools. We provide all of our resources for free — anyone can use them, even hobby developers at university.

FC: If Sony Ericsson sees top-notch applications that are created by third-party developers, would it adopt these applications to then offer on the handsets?

Olsson: There are different approaches: sometimes we see content being popular on other platforms or competing phones and we approach developers to have them adapt their applications for our phones. But a lot of the time we try to find unique applications for our specific phones. For instance, we try to encourage game developers to let users pick their own background tracks from the MP3s on their phones or create their own sound effects to personalize the game playing experience.

We’ve also been very successful in the gaming area. We were the first to implement 3D graphics on mass-market phones in 2004. We took on the challenge of educating the global game developer community on what 3D can do to enhance the game-playing experience and created an entire Web section on Sony Ericsson Developer World that solely focused on 3D game development. It took a lot of missioning in the industry to ensure that we had the best technology implemented on our phones and also to make developers realize the business potential.

FC: Were developers hesitant at first?

Olsson: Developers are very keen at earning money out of their development, at least if they are professional developers, which we tend to focus on because those are the ones who create the highest quality content. So if they are going to jump on the bandwagon of new technology, they want to ensure that there is a business case for it: Are there enough handsets on the market? Is it easy to adapt my application for as many handsets as possible? We have implemented 3D gaming on over 55 phone models today and developers are telling us that Sony Ericsson has the leading game playing performance on our handsets.

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FC: Where are the majority of Sony Ericsson handset users located?

Olsson: Sony Ericsson has a larger portfolio of different handsets for Europe and Asia because we have more operator customers there. But I would say that the maturity of consumers downloading applications is just as big here in the U.S. There’s some education to be done in a lot of markets to educate consumers that they can actually download content to their phones, which is a concept that maybe not everybody understands. But I also believe that there’s a growing generation of young people who are used to transferring music files from their PC to their handset. So I think the concept of using third-party content will trickle off to other areas as well.

FC: You recently launched Sony Ericsson Developer World in China — why did you choose that particular region?

Olsson: We have seen the Chinese regional market grow exponentially in the last few years. In order to support Sony Ericsson’s growth plans in that region we realized that we needed to work with local application developers and content creators. For one, to ensure that we have localized content for the Chinese market. The second reason is that we would like to encourage Chinese developers to reach a global market. So if there are really good developers in China they also have the opportunity to reach Sony Ericsson’s global market, not just focus on the handsets that are China specific. But the major reason for establishing Sony Ericsson Developer World in China is that the Chinese market is very different from the global market. With the global program we have been able to support application developers in the English language. But in order to ensure that we get good localized content from China, we realized that we needed to have documentation and tools translated to the Chinese language and people in place who can handle partner management and signed distribution deals.

FC: Are most of your developers concentrated in North America?

Olsson: We see that the biggest base is divided between Europe and North America, and probably 20-30 percent of developers are based in the U.S. Surprisingly, they don’t only target the mass-market Java phones — we have quite a few developers who target the UIQ based smartphones or the Symbian OS based phones even though those phones are not distributed by carriers in the U.S. So we see that developers have realized that there is a global business potential, and we’d like to encourage more developers to look beyond the borders of America.

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FC: So developers are essentially creating applications for phones that American consumers won’t see until the UIQ phones come here?

Olsson: We also have some American developers like Audible, which is an audio books company, who first created a program for UIQ phones but now has a Java version of it for the mass-market phones that sell in the U.S. This is a trend we’re seeing — even if developers start on a particular platform or for a particular segment of the portfolio, they quickly realize that they can benefit from other parts of the portfolio or other markets of the world as well.

FC: Do you have plans to expand the platforms that developers can add applications to beyond music and gaming?

Olsson: Currently we are focusing on four or five different areas. Music and gaming are two of the very important ones. Another area is imaging — photo blogging, video blogging, different photo editing applications like face warp, which is preloaded on our cybershot phones. It’s a silly application, but a lot of people really enjoy it and they save the photo and send it to friends. That sort of application that enhances the use of the camera and makes people do more than just take pictures and store them on the device is something that we see growing. A lot of the interactivity with the phone, using web services or storing images or accessing databases, is something we think will grow. In terms of Web communications we are working on productive mobility which deals with everything from push email clients and office applications, to mobile navigation applications or a business card scanner.

And the fifth area that we see evolving is mobile TV, video, and film. So far, the majority of the content is not programming or creating software — it’s more content that you can transfer to your phone and watch. In the future we’re talking a lot about time shifting and watching things on demand. We see a lot of interest in this area, but quite honestly technology hasn’t matured yet.

FC: What are Sony’s plans to compete with the iPhone?

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Olsson: Having a touch screen-based phone that is also a music phone is nothing new for Sony Ericsson. The benefit of our phones is that they’re based on an open platform so you can download applications and content, which I think is a really strong proposition for users. That way they can personalize the look, feel and use of the phone. These phones support everything from allowing users to read their e-mail, to downloading music and games, to blogging applications. So the concept of that type of phone is not new to us but of course it will be interesting to see how it pans out. But I think that everything anybody can do to increase awareness among consumers to get them to download more or to use their phones for more than just talking or sending texts is good.