August 06, 2007


By Clifford Chew, Vice President (Engineering)

Hi. I’m Clifford and I head up BuzzCity’s Engineering team. I’d like to give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we think about technology and at some of the innovations we’ve implemented, both to optimise the myGamma user experience as well as to make it easier and quicker for us to roll out new services.
Four years ago when we first conceptualised myGamma, we faced major design decisions. Should we use Linux or Microsoft Windows, Open Source or Oracle, Java or some other platform? While there were advantages to working with the big names, we opted for the cost-effective route and began writing code optimised for Linux.

We also prototyped and built myGamma as a Java-based (J2ME) application. There was a lot of hype surrounding Java at the time and most telecom companies would only partner with us if we were Java-based. However we quickly ran into problems. First, there are no standardised specs for mobile phones. Different makes and models have unique screen sizes, processor speeds, memory capabilities and menu options. When we tried to take account of all these variables using Java, our application became heavy and it took too long for users to download.

We then asked ourselves, what in retrospect seems like an obvious question: “What’s more important: technology or user-uptake?”

We had to make the user experience fast and easy if people were going to sign up and use myGamma. So we went back to the drawing board and redesigned the service to make it as simple as possible. It had to work on all phones, regardless of the operating system or other technical specifications, and it had to run quickly. The best way to do this was to programme for the lowest common denominator – and this meant using WAP technology.

The decision to go with WAP was the one of the most important choices made by BuzzCity. It wasn't an easy choice though. At the time, most people believed WAP was inherently less interactive than Java. However, through an innovative use of WAP and server-side features, we have been able to simulate the interactivity and develop the fast simple user interface we desired.

Today myGamma is accessible in more than 50 countries on almost all GSM mobile phones and virtually every PDA. myGamma automatically detects the handset device and formats the pages accordingly. Users enjoy a personalised experience each time they sign in. More recently, we’ve added an HTML interface so PDA users have a more colourful experience.

The constant challenge is to make the technology transparent to the end user. So before every new product or feature release, we spend a lot of time testing ways of presenting information and choices. Remember that many of our users have never used a PC before. They’re not familiar with Windows and probably wouldn’t have given myGamma a second look if we had given them a Windows-like interface.

After implementing the basics – refining how users can send and receive messages and exchange rich media, such as photos – we turned our attention to other services.

For example, in some of our partner pages, you can click on a link and it triggers a standard mobile phone call to the retail outlet of a store. Once the call is over, the user is returned to the WAP page.
We’ve also recently introduced a mobile version of the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia. It’s quite a challenge to take so much information – written for display on a computer screen – and adapt it for easy access and viewing on mobile phones.

myGamma members can easily sell products and services or advertise online.
Depending on the country, users can be billed through their mobile phone provider (ie the charge will show up on their next phone bill), via SMS or credit card. We're likely the first company in Asia to integrate multiple payment platforms like these into our mobile system.

One of our most important innovations has been a behind-the-scenes initiative to make it easier for engineers to test and roll out new applications. Often, when an engineer has a great idea, he gets bogged down in the setup and programming. The application needs to work on a range of platforms and phones with different screen sizes and device limitations, so the coding becomes a bottleneck. To overcome this, we created a development platform called Gamma 2.0. Our engineers can now quickly express their ideas within this coding skeleton. It takes fewer lines of programming to create a new application and we can test the user experience within just a few days.

Furthermore, since the user and payment features are already online, it takes less than a day to receive feedback as to whether a new service is popular or profitable. In addition, the Gamma 2.0 platform links the new program to all our other applications, so users can enjoy a consistent personalised experience.

At BuzzCity, we know that INNOVATION is key. We need to constantly seek and produce new and better services for our members, which is why our team members are encouraged to dream in our 20 Percent Projects. Our engineers can spend twenty percent of their time – one day a week – working on ideas and new projects of their choice. We provide our engineers with the resources to foster their own creativity and experiment with new ideas. We realise that most 20-Percent Projects will not make it online. But that's fine. Every month we identify promising prototypes that add value to the myGamma experience.

BuzzCity is also partnering with the National University of Singapore (NUS) to advance the conceptualisation and development of digital media products. Kok Fung will kick off the Digital Media Forum on 17 August and over the next year, we will give away eight S$5000 awards to innovators with new mobile ideas.

I enjoy my job. It’s creative, it’s exciting and most of all I know that the programmes and applications we develop are transforming the way people communicate and connect to information around the globe.