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July - 2006 - issue > Entrepreneurship
Mobile is Your Stadium
Sanjeev Jain
Tuesday, July 4, 2006
Skava is in a sweet spot. The San Francisco-based company is a blend of a few innovative ideas that hold the promise of making mobiles the fastest growing hand-held gaming console.

Combine the ubiquity of mobiles with their multiple usages and you can see why and how the company’s co-founder and President Arish Ali has led Skava from a startup to a successful and profitable company. And this success was achieved with a vision of connected mobile data applications while not raising a single dollar from the Venture Capitalists.

Ali’s company has always been at this interjection developing a few widely played and downloaded network aware mobile games like Cricket, Domino, Spades and Sudoku. So when someone downloads USA Today Sudoku puzzle game onto his or her mobile phone, be sure that Skava developed it. Puzzles account for nearly half of all free mobile game downloads, and over a quarter of all mobile gaming revenues.

According to IDC, U.S. revenues from mobile games will rise to $1.5 billion in 2008, from $600 million in 2005.

But Ali’s interest, nowadays, is taking the next step up beyond games. In business terminology he wants to move up the ladder by selling to people non-games based services.

Non Games is better
“Games are a means to keep the company up and running,” he says. Games have been such a cash cow to Ali. His eye is on the non-gaming sector, which holds more promises “I see a lot of non games potential. Non gaming sector will be bigger than gaming,” Ali adds.

As mobiles get nifty, people depend on it more for their daily chores than their laptops. SKAVA is targeting this market. It has a host of features like Daily Comics, Stock Ticker and SkavaMail. It has also tied up with New York Stock Exchange, AMEX, NASDAQ, and Dow Jones to provide users with market quotes and news. Recently it added a new feature where users can customize and get quotes of their preferred equities. Once tuned in, mobile display has a ticker that shows the most happening stock of that hour. “The most active stocks in the major exchanges scroll by, with minute-by-minute news and commentary. One can get alerts, quotes and news on your favorite stocks,” says Ali. The Daily Comic feature has seven comics like Garfield, FoxTrot, Doonsbury and Pooch Café among others.

Another non-gaming application Skava is developing now is the storefront application. Most mobile application has to be either ordered through SMS or Website and that’s a cumbersome process. “Skava’s storefront technology is like a catalogue on the phone. You preview and then order,” Ali says.

Be a Partner
In a cutthroat competitive atmosphere, providing a slew of non-voice services is the next best bet, but most of them do not have a technology. “Lack of technologies can hit the top level revenues hardest,” says Ali. But with Skava around there seems to be some answer for non-voice technology. “Operators look at many options but don’t have the technology and we develop and sell the technology to them,” Ali adds.

Not all handsets are capable of supporting all features and, operators cannot risk asking their customers to buy a new handset. Skava has gone a step further and made porting available at carriers end. Ali says, “We are building a technology company that has unique skills in porting mobile games to different handsets and our own platform for multi player games development.” Today, Skava is integrating porting in all the devices it ships. This has helped the company to rapidly generate games and applications. And above all, Ali’s luck lies in the fact that there’s virtually no competition when it comes porting. “There are no competitors who provide such integrated platform to support all types of handsets,” Ali emphasizes.

Ali is candid in saying that Skava is quite aware of risks involved in building new games and works on those games that non-gamers can play where the market is big.

“I came to the market with the point of view to sell technology,” says Ali about his initial thrust into the mobile gaming business. Skava had developed a multiplayer solution and approached carriers. However the carriers were not ready those days and he had to go back to the drawing table to develop a single player system. Now that the market is ready for multiplayer games, he is enjoying those rewards as he has a headstart.

To illustrate the multiplayer technology, Ali takes the example of cricket. Users in India and England can download a cricket game and start playing. The user in India belongs to Team India while his opponent will be in the English team and both will compete. Skava will monitor the results and display it on its website for others to see who is winning. Texas Hold’em is another game Skava is converting to multiplayer, Ali reveals.

India and Thereafter
After starting out on his own, Ali wanted to sell his technology and one place he could think off was India. Mobile industry in India had just started taking off in 2003 as new companies entered the market. Ali spent a whole year negotiating with Indian operators trying to close the deal. However he failed, as Indian operators then were not ready with data billing plan and Ali shelved plans to sell in India. But he did not pack his back, as he was not ready to waste his business trip to India. He started a development center in the southern Indian city of Coimbatore. Today he has a team of 17 engineers in India who develop the game for Skava.

Back in the U.S.
When Ali went back to U.S., the mobile industry had just started to look up and mobile users had taken to gaming big time. Skava got a chance to approach U.S. carriers. Besides U.S., Skava today has a presence in Australia, India and is trying to get into China for the sheer size of its mobile market.

However he is avoiding Japan and Korea- both gamers paradise-due to competition and also as they are ahead of the market and cannot break into them.

Early Days
Ali’s first brush with computers was in school. However, it was during his IIT Kanpur days that his childhood passion, games, sort way inside a computer. Luckily for Ali, the idea to start his first company came from Brience, a wireless startup where he worked after he left Microsoft.

He understood the technology that goes into wireless at Brience and had that in mind when he started Skava. It was there he had a vision to have a products company of his own in India. “I want to build a great products company where people will be happy to work and bring out great products out of India,” says Ali.
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