Posted on Tuesday 21 December 2010 by Ulster Business

GSMA's Michael O'Hara

Mobile internet is among the fastest growing technology sectors and Northern Ireland’s entrepreneurs need to get involved now if they want to ride the wave, the GSMA’s Michael O’Hara tells Symon Ross

I was recently referred to as a platform agnostic when I admitted to being neither an iPhone or Android smartphone user. True, this was at a tech industry event, where not to have the ability to be online at any given moment would have given most delegates a panic attack. But still, it confirmed to me how quickly the world of mobile internet has taken hold on everyday life. The question was “are you on iphone or android” not “do you have a smart phone”? In fact, from there being around 5 million mobile connections in 1995 it was recently confirmed that the figure of 5 billion mobile connections was surpassed this year. And according to industry estimates there could be as many as 50 billion mobile connections by 2020. When that is broken down to around seven per person, you might think that figure has simply been plucked out of the ether. Yet when you consider that consumers already expect seamless connectivity in many of the devices they use in life – and the fact that many people already have mobile phones, iPad’s, GPS systems and more – it could yet be true. Some 6.5 billion Apple applications have been downloaded to date and around 1.4 billion android apps. Belfast-born Michael O’Hara, chief marketing officer for the GSMA – the global industry body for the mobile industry – says all the signs point to the take-up of mobile technology continuing to grow at an exponential rate in the next decade. “Some people say 20 billion devices, some say 30 billion – others say it will happen by 2025. Basically it is going to be a lot, that’s the key. We’re in this cycle where the networks are rolling out effectively and module prices are coming down really quickly. When we started this conversation two years ago a module for 3G inside a device was about $70-$80. Now it is nearer $20. So you create a virtuous cycle where that price comes down, more people put it in devices and more networks get built,” he told Ulster Business. “We’re in a world now where you want your contacts and information available wherever you are. I think we’ll get to the point where you’ll be able to pause the TV at home and start watching it on your iPhone or iPad or whatever device you are using on the move. I think that concept of storage in the cloud and seamlessly accessing it from any device is the way it is going.” And O’Hara should know. Based in Boston in the US and working for the organisation that represents the interests of the global mobile communications industry since 2008, O’Hara previously spent four years as general manager for marketing and industry management at Microsoft in Seattle and before that was vice president of worldwide marketing for Sonus Networks, a world leader in packet voice communications. Until 2002 he was chief marketing officer at Nortel Networks in Europe. Among the key business areas that he believes will drive the continued growth of the mobile sector beyond the youngest segments of the population already comfortable using mobile devices in everything they do, are healthcare, transport and utilities. In developed countries such as the US, an estimated 15% of GDP is spent on health, and that could be set to double due to aging populations. In that scenario there will be opportunities for mobile technology to be used as a way of monitoring blood pressure and heart rates, and in hard to reach locations to provide the means for remote diagnosis – all of which could save considerable costs. In transport 2% of cars shipped in 2010 had mobile connections built in, but this is growing fast. Uses envisaged in the transport sector include emergency buttons, pay as you drive road tolls, pay as you drive insurance, and monitoring of CO2 emissions. In utilities smart meters and smart grids are already in use and companies have invested millions in their development around the world. An estimated 26 million homes in the UK will have smart meters by 2020, allowing people to self manage and save on bills, while smart grids should help suppliers to also manage generation costs. “The pace we’re rolling this thing out is mind-blowing. It is really the fastest technology rollout of all time when you compare it to computers or radio or TV that have come before. It is growing really fast, we’re still growing connections and building mobile connectivity into the developing world, both for voice and internet,” says O’Hara. “As the price of those modules come down, what do you do with the ubiquitous broadband network? That’s where it starts to play in these adjacent areas.” He says that in 2010 we are at an “amazing intersection” where everything in our lives can be connected. We want it to be seamless wherever we are and O’Hara argues that to be at the centre of the world in 2020 Northern Ireland’s leading companies and entrepreneurs have to be standing at this intersection right now. “I honestly think this is wide open. I don’t think anyone has really cornered what this market is going to look like or what the devices or applications are going to be that are going to thrive in this connected world,” he says. “It is opportunity time and the kind of trends we’re talking about create great opportunities for everyone to come up with great ideas and get them to market quick.” Whether Northern Ireland has the tech expertise or entrepreneurial infrastructure to launch viable companies onto the world stage in a short space of time is the big question. O’Hara notes that Northern Ireland has a great history of invention but perhaps needs to rediscover this with more work in line with what the NISP CONNECT programme is doing to engage the university community with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The GSMA executive notes that the people who got in touch with him after a recent presentation at the Science Park were from the services sector – lawyers, finance experts, head-hunters – rather than entrepreneurs who will develop the devices and write the applications. “It is all about how do you bring the entrepreneurs together. We don’t know what is going to win but if we can get some of those companies up and running quickly we’ve got as good a chance as anyone. I see no gap in the abilities of the graduates that come out of Northern Ireland,” he says. “The bad news for us is people in our universities who have ideas that end up becoming companies out on the west coast of US. We need to get those companies starting back home. “Your ideal situation is the next facebook comes out of Belfast, that’s sustainable and long term. Taking money from a US company to set up an outpost in Northern Ireland that creates 50 jobs is not really going to solve our problems. It is a good thing, it creates jobs and gets people into the industry, but I think we’ve really got to swing the pendulum towards local people building great ideas into world class companies.”

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