As the game of poker grows, the options available for the poker lover to play increase. Stuck in an airport? On a long drive (as the passenger of course - no playing while you drive!)? Now you can play the game you love almost anywhere via your cellular phone. No fewer than a half dozen options are available for the flop junkie in today's cellular world. Just like the internet, you can play in real time, against people from all over the world. Unlike the internet, however, you cannot play for real money ..yet.
Recently, I spoke with two of the leaders in this quickly growing market of mobile gaming to get a sense of where this is all going.
"Three years ago people scoffed at it [the mobile applications market], today it has shown itself to be a real market." Says Isaac Babbs, the VP of Mobile Games for Infospace Mobile, which is one of the leaders in mobile application technology. "Its about a $250 million retail revenue market in US, and about the same size in Europe, and Asia."
Whereas cell phones have been commonplace for over a decade now, the fast rise in gaming applications has been a rather recent development. This is mainly due to the advancements in the handsets themselves. "Another important element is the handsets have gone from B&W voice only, to fully developed color screens." Babbs remarks "Now, around the world 67% of units have color screen, have Java built in, etc.. Also the carrier networks are more fully developed, which helps a lot. The billing mechanisms are built into the handset where you can buy things directly, and it goes directly to your bill, which is a very clean way to do it."
One of the more high profile entries in this mobile poker arena is The Hellmuth Holdem game issued earlier this year by Summus, Inc - a wireless content provider based in Raleigh, NC. Gary Ban, CEO of Summus saw the demand a year ago, and focused his companies efforts on developing a game that could compete in this emerging area. "We looked at doing a multi player poker game back in Aug of 2003, and spent 6 months developing the game. In about March 2004, we had a game developed." Ban says.
How does one get to one of the superstars of our game to pitch him on the idea? "Through one of our board members, we hooked up with a pro poker player who knew Phil, and we basically picked up the phone, and called him" says Ban. So has Phil turned any chairs over in the boardroom, or done any 'redecorating' to any of the Summus offices? How has he been to work with? "Phil has been an exceptional partner to work with, and no matter where he is, or what he is promoting, he always takes time to promote Summus, and the Hellmuth Holdem Game."
The million-dollar question is - what is the future of mobile gaming, and specifically the future of poker applications? Well, the logical first question is - Is the technology there to play for real money right now? "I think so." Babbs says "Technically, you could do it, but it really comes down to a consumer experience issue. By the time it takes to put a credit card in, go through the security measures, etc its really a pain in the butt."
Given that the technology exists, it seems only a matter of time until (at least in certain parts of the world) mobile poker/gaming for real money is here, and here to stay. "There's no doubt that around the world its going to happen" says Babbs "What's happened with the online sites in the poker world will probably happen in the mobile space" "A lot of the guys in the online (poker) world are probably looking at the mobile space right now." "I think it really comes down to a geographic issue as well, as to what the laws are in the individual territory". As with any gaming related issue, it seems the issue of mobile gaming for real money will come down to local laws, and gaming regulations in the individual country the cell carrier is operating in.
Ban sees the future of real money gaming as an opportunity for him, and his company. "That [real money mobile gaming] is something that we are always looking to do. Obviously, right now from a legal perspective, in the US its just not doable, but as we branch out internationally, its an angle for the game that we would love to get into, its something that we could do very easily."
The question becomes what about the good ol US of A? Obviously, the issue of internet gaming has been a sticky one these past couple years. The mobile arena, however, seems a little more cut and dried, as carriers are subject to local laws and regulations. What about a mobile service offering some kind of offshore gaming application - Is this possible? "In the US, it is illegal to be running any type of interstate gaming" "We're not in that space, and we have no plans today to be in that space". "I don't think the carriers are going to touch it, because it is illegal, and they are a highly regulated industry" says Babbs. Ban tends to agree "Gambling is a sensitive subject...not only to carriers, but to device manufacturers and to large networks it's a little tricky to get around sometimes".
Infospace has come up with a value solution where cash does not change hands, but the more skilled players can be rewarded with prizes that are donated via sponsors. Prizes range from T-shirts to gift cards, which spend like cash. Holdem plus for prizes is Infospace's primary poker offering. "First of all, we wanted to create something that didn't exist in the mobile realm at all, which is a mobile multi player tournament environment where people compete against each other for prizes." Thus far, Babbs is pleased with the results. "We went live late 2003 on Verizon and Alltel and we've just passed 12 million total games played".
The Hellmuth Holdem game has a ranking system, where players can go to the games dedicated website, and see how they match up to the other subscribers on the system. Thus far, Gary Ban is pleased with the results "We launched Hellmuth Holdem in May of 2004, and given the limited distribution capability of the game thus far, we are very please with the amount of subscriptions."
Both of these companies see mobile gaming as a big growth industry, and are continuing to develop new applications for consumers. "We have a number of games in the pipeline, most of them are of the multi player nature. Some are casino games, some action, some strategy, etc" Says Ban "We focus on trying to build a community around our games, and tie in the multi player aspect"
It remains to be seen if the ever-growing poker community will embrace mobile gaming. If these mobile applications are embraced, the real question will be when or if we take each other's money over our cell phones?
Nowadays, if you are stuck in an airport, your thinking is probably something like "Damn it. My flight is delayed." Could we see a day where your thinking becomes something like "Yes! Another delay. I can get a few dozen more hands in!"? Stay Tuned.