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Wireless messaging comes of age

Soumik Sen | August 16, 2003

Ramesh Narang is a busy techie in the capital. A fresh engineering graduate, his gruelling onsite schedule meant there was no time to catch up with pals abroad.

But now he can. He is an Idea cellular subscriber, which means he can use the mobile chat -- or wireless instant messenger -- option to keep in touch.

With WIM, not only can he maintain a chat group on his cellphone, and send and receive instant messages, he can also chat up anyone who has an e-mail ID and is logged on to the Internet.

How does he do it? He sends out a chat invite from his phone to an e-mail ID. The recipient gets a 100 kilobyte chat box which is downloaded, and the cellphone and the PC begin talking.

Welcome to the world of wireless messaging, where you can transmit not just plain text but also emoticons, pictures, tunes and blinker bytes, and indulge in file sharing.

In fact, Narang has been using the 'find a friend' function, where one can list profiles of registered users, get to see their profiles, hear their voice and send out invites for chat sessions.

But it isn't just Idea but a host of cellular service players like Bharti's Airtel, RPG, Spice and Escotel that are providing users with their own messenger services.

And who is enabling it all? It is ACL Wireless, a three-year old start-up housed in east of Kailash, New Delhi, funded by Hong Kong-based venture capitalist firm Inter-Asia Venture Management.

Formerly Asia Cybernet Ltd, ACL first launched a wireless application protocol portal called three years ago, to ride on Airtel's WAP service Tango. Some of the services it offered included accessing e-mails and jokes.

What ACL had in hand was a great idea but getting Airtel's customers to use it was a Herculean task. According to Sanjay Goyal, chief executive officer and promoter of ACL, the major roadblocks were speed, cost and interface.

"The cost of calling was high and one could not receive a call while using the service due to the absence of dual band," says the mechanical engineer from the University of Texas.

But not everything was lost. "While WAP was a big flop technologically, it was obvious that apart from e-mail, the instant messenger facility in it was a big hit. So we picked it up and developed WIM," says Goyal. Today, ACL's client roster is an impressive list of 15 mobile phone operators worldwide.

ACL says that it is the only Indian company to provide the instant messenger on cellphone. Just how different is it from Yahoo or MSN? Even as they have a wireless presence, they are basically on-line services.

Having started off on the Internet, they branched off by allowing mobile users to log on using a cellphone. In comparison, ACL's presence is in the mobile space.

Modelled as an utility for the cell phone subscriber, it allows the cell operator to build and brand it as his own like an Airtel messenger or Idea M-chat.

The success of WIM spurred dotcoms such as Yahoo! and MSN to extend their Internet-based messenger facilities to mobile users.

Today, about 5 million messages are exchanged a month on ACL's platform by 150,000 registered users in India amounting to 60 million messages a year.

Goyal claims that WIM is growing at 10 per cent annually. "When deployed across the world by this year-end, we should be clocking 40 million messages per month," he adds.

Once the general packet radio service standard gains popularity, the real fun of WIM will actually be there for all to see, with colourful interactive browsers, emoticons and picture messaging facilities.

In a span of three years, if British telecom consultant Baskerville is to be believed, 117 billion wireless instant messages would be exchanged annually, generating revenues of $9.2 billion for operators.

Understandably, Goyal, is grinning from ear to ear, especially because he is virtually unrivalled in the national cellular space.

Hyderabad-based Abacus, which is into value added services like ring tones and contests had offered messenger services to Airtel in Andhra Pradesh a year ago. But industry experts say that it has discontinued its services now because of competition.

IBM has an instant messaging product with a difference. It is not for wireless but an application programme -- Lotus Same Time -- aimed at offices.

And worldwide, apart from the licensing fee that ACL charges from each service provider annually, it also gets a share of the revenue (40-60 per cent) through WIM. And all this when ACL's international foray has just begun.

"We've signed a deal with Pinnoy Central, the largest service provider in the Philippines, where SMS traffic is 150 million messages per day. We'll be providing WIM for them," says Goyal. ACL hopes to reach out to another 16 million users in the island through the Pinnoy deal.

ACL is also operating in Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore in the far-east and intends to reach out to operators in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas as well.

In Europe, the company has tied up with mobile browser provider SmartTrust of Sweden, which is the default browser for 85 European service providers in 25 countries.

"North America is the last stop in our expansion drive because there are already 250-odd operators and SMS isn't too popular there," says Goyal.

And apart from the service provider end, ACL is also speaking to cellphone manufacturers Nokia, Ericcson and Motorola to bundle their WIM in its next line of GPRS phones as the default messenger for India.

The next batch of GPRS phones, reportedly would have built-in instant messenger softwares and ACL is eyeing that market as well.

ACL is looking at breaking even by this financial year-end. Today, most of its revenue comes from licensing and revenue sharing arrangements with operators.

But it is looking for alternate revenue streams. Embedding the messenger in mobile phones is one of them.

A major source of future income is expected to come from enterprise solutions. With this application, specially customised for an organisation, an officer can send out instructions to every single field agent from his desktop.

"This would be a boon for direct marketing companies. It affords all-time connectivity with the office server for customer contact centres," says Goyal.

He claims that they are looking at tying up with CRM (customer relationship management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) software companies.

"We want to bundle the messenger with their software as a value-add," adds Goyal. Now, that would make Narang's life even more exciting.

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