Published: March 2, 2012
BARCELONA, Spain — Cellphone carriers are forcing customers to think about how much data they are slurping up as they watch YouTube and stream music from Pandora. In the United States, customers with unlimited plans who use a lot of data have found themselves forced into a network slow lane.
Now companies are introducing services and applications that promise to help phone users manage and understand their data diet — for example, flagging the late-night Tumblr binge that chewed through their monthly data ration. The idea is to help them tweak their behavior and the way their phone works to get the most out of their data plans.
Start-ups like Onavo have services that compress data on its way to the phone.Qualcomm, the telecommunications company, is developing software that can be built into phones and seeks ways to minimize data use, like automatically switching to Wi-Fi when an approved network is detected.
Your average smartphone owner could use some assistance on this front. Many are unlikely to know the difference between a megabyte and a gigabyte, or how much data it takes to watch a music video.
“In the early days of smartphones, people got into the habit of using as much data as they wanted,” said Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner. “And unlike with voice services, where at least you can get a feel for how many minutes you’ve been talking, it’s a lot harder to gauge how much data you’re using when you’re listening to music or browsing the Web.”
In particular, as smartphones become ubiquitous and people begin to use them as their primary phone, there’s “a lot more concern and fear of bill shock,” said Mr. Redman.
Phone owners can of course check with their carrier to see how much data they have used, and most phones keep a running tally. But Guy Rosen, co-founder and chief executive of Onavo, said this information did not help people be more resourceful in using data. He said his company’s service could squeeze more megabytes out of monthly plans.
“Most apps use data inefficiently,” Mr. Rosen said. “Most mobile developers came up in an ecosystem where data was not limited, and efficiency is not a top priority in their design.”
Using Onavo, which works on Apple and Android devices, requires users to change their phone settings to route data through Onavo’s servers. That allows the service to look for ways to conserve, by shrinking image files, say, or by using a cache of Twitter profile pictures instead of fetching them again on each visit.
Onavo, which Mr. Rosen says has millions of users, is free for now, although the service may soon introduce some paid features. The company, which introduced a new version of its service at the Mobile World Congress here this week, has raised $13 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, Magma Venture Partners and Motorola Ventures.
The browser maker Opera has been thinking about the data problem for years now. Its Opera Mini and Opera Mobile browsers for cellphones take a similar approach to Onavo, but one that is focused on Web pages. When a user opens a Web page in these browsers, the request is sent through Opera’s servers, which convert the page to a less data-heavy format and pass it along to the phone. Pal Unanue-Zahl, a spokesman for the company, said the result was something like a smaller image of the page. Opera Mini alone has 160 million monthly users, the company says.
Carriers are also looking at ways to manage heavy data traffic by shifting users to Wi-Fi networks. WeFi, a start-up based in Israel, says it is working with several carriers in the United States to test its software, which puts cellphones onto Wi-Fi for data when possible, using a database of trusted networks.
Amit Shaked, vice president of products and marketing at WeFi, said that the wireless industry had been forced to think more broadly about how to deal with the demand for mobile data, which has been greater than they were prepared to handle.
“Wi-Fi used to be a no-no word in the wireless world,” he said. “Carriers didn’t want to lose the traffic. But after the first shock wave came after the iPhone was released and AT&T’s network started to collapse, and then Android came out and the problem quadrupled, carriers began to look for other solutions to this problem.”
Qualcomm, which makes chips for smartphones and tablet computers, is taking a slightly different approach. This week the company unveiled an Android application called Consia that monitors a phone’s activities — when it is connected to Wi-Fi, for example, or when its busiest times are and when it’s not in use. Then it adjusts the phone’s settings accordingly. For example, Consia might shut down applications that are running in the background at night, when it knows the phone is not in use, and then switch them on in the morning to start downloading information, around the time the user picks up the device again.
“It’s looking for patterns and will make inferences about how you use your device,” said Colm Healy, vice president and general manager of Xiam, the division of Qualcomm that developed Consia. “The idea is turning off the things you don’t need and conserving a phone’s limited resources, like battery power and bandwidth.”
Mr. Healy said that Qualcomm hoped to start shipping the Consia software by the second quarter of this year and that it could begin appearing on mobile phones and tablets by the end of this year.
Analysts say that as helpful as these services might be, they could raise privacy concerns. Users are getting more squeamish about privacy in light of recent stumbles by Apple and Google, and might not be eager to install software on their phones that can monitor their daily activities.
But Mr. Unanue-Zahl at Opera said that the company did not know anything more about its users than a typical Internet service provider would.
“When you enter the service, the phone assigns you a unique number and then it’s detached from any other recognizable information,” he said.
Mr. Rosen of Onavo also said his company’s service did not store information about users. And Mr. Healy of Qualcomm said Consia stored a user’s information locally and sent nothing back to the company.