CTIA – If Carriers Can Have The Equivalent Of Pop-Ups On A Device, Can They Be Trusted To Use Them Responsibly?

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At CTIA last week, I met with a company called SNAPin, which makes a particularly interesting kind of customer-service software. Russell met with them at 3GSM, and like him, I came away pretty impressed. SNAPin software, once installed on compatible handsets (S60 and Windows Mobile at the moment), delivers context-relevant messages and content to users to help the user experience and aid in customer service, as well as to automatically perform service tasks on user devices. For instance, it can automatically adapt APN or other data settings when a user roams, or self-correct broken settings. It can intercept customer-service calls and present users with common call topics, like the ability to check their bill.

It also can pop up with messages triggered by certain events. An operator could set it to pop up the first time a user takes a picture with a handset, offering a tutorial on how to send photos, or offer to use a contact backup service after a user enters names into their phonebook. It can offer help and guidance, but also drive users to content and services, such as the backup example, or in the image at right, where it’s pushing the user towards ringtones. It’s that sort of thing that concerns me a bit — I’m worried that operators could shoot useful technology like this in the foot by taking something designed to significantly improve the user experience, and overextend it in such a way that it’s pretty detrimental.

I raised this issue with Tom Trinneer, a SNAPin VP, and he told me it’s something the company has spent a lot of time thinking about. The software is engineered to be largely invisible to the user, and the company pays special attention to ensuring it won’t drain a users’ battery or subject them to extra costs, and they’ve developed a set of best practices for operators that can be summed up as “don’t be annoying”. Clearly SNAPin realizes that it’s got nothing to gain by encouraging operators to bug the hell out of their users, but at the end of the day, they’re just the vendor, and the operators will pretty much do whatever they want. I’m optimistic that operators will be intelligent enough to use this properly, but it’s not as if they’ve got no track record for doing things on handsets to irritate subscribers.

The point of this isn’t to cast doubt on SNAPin itself — as I said, I think it’s pretty cool technology, and their carrier trials and upcoming deals with vendors to get their software embedded in devices as standard go some way to prove this. But I really wonder if overzealous operators will be able to restrain themselves — I’ve got visions of the Microsoft Office paper clip thing in my head. But, fortunately that paper clip could be turned off when it became annoying. Users will hopefully have the same ability with operators’ implementations of the software, and have a measure of control over what it offers them. Perhaps there’s even room in here for some advertising usage — ie opt-in to our content pushes, and get discounts or free stuff, or something similar.

So, as I said in the title, if operators get the ability to pop things up on users’ screens, both in cases where they can help a lot, or simply just to push them to services or promotions, can they be trusted to do so responsibly?

[tags]mobile, ctia, snapin[/tags]

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