Monday, July 10, 2006

The Mobile Internet - Dead or Alive?

Two blog posts recently suggested a shape for the mobile internet and offer a great contrast: Carnival of the Mobilists got excited about a piece on how the operators and manufacturers could and should become mobile internet companies, whilst Wireless Watch pronounced the mobile internet dead for it's own good. I read the latter first and thought it one of the best pieces I've read in a long time - so good I didn't blog about it because I couldn't think of much useful to add. The first one was a load of rubbish masking a proven core concept that is useful but not world changing.

The monkey gets very enthusiastic about the idea of connecting the physical world to information through your phone, which on the one hand is great for certain types of limited data search which could be hugely useful to users, and on the other hand is seen by marketing types as amazing because they can push loads of stuff at consumers. These two perspectives overlap - some people want the content that some marketers produce - and could lead to some great innovation in off-portal mobile distribution. But I remain sceptical that this will change the world in any deep way for the following reasons:
  • The idea is presented as new, with no reference back to the guys who've been doing it for ages
    • By all accounts they work very nicely, with good integration into the handset UI.
    • Lack of smooth integration (preinstalled, on mass market phones) will kill the many 3rd parties trying to break into this non-Japanese market.
    • Who is going to download 3rd party software and then go through 6 clicks to start it, then take a photo with it, just to get pushed on to an advert they're semi-curious about? Ergo outside select niches, these companies have no future.
  • Why would Nokia, Samsung et al want to turn into mobile internet companies? Are they bored of making real money? The carriers would never let them make any revenue from this kind of service, so they will only do it if the carriers force them to. Note:
    • DoCoMo did it years ago - and they rigidly control the specs of all handsets on their network;
    • In the more global handset market no manufacturer has followed suit, and no other operator has enough control to demand it in a correctly integrated way, even though the handsets have been technically capable for some time (I've seen 2 year old handsets do it in near realtime in Java).
  • The size of the claims inspire scepticism:
    • I doubt end users will get very excited about the "billions" of links could be pushed to them on a Coke can;
    • I'm even more sceptical that a can could usefully hold 'billions' of links - in practice I think one link would be the most a user could cope with, possibly a link to a menu containing various options if it was a really exciting Coke can.
    • The post's language just reads like Web 2.0 groupthink not reasoned argument.
  • The post points out a key danger by saying "a good mobile marketer knows how to turn pull into push" - a marketer may know how to push but a user burnt once won't sign up a second time to be hassled by a call centre robot or SMS spam.
Not to mention the hideously contorted metaphor which is the backbone of the piece - I always prefer to read a simple concept presented well rather than a simple concept obfuscated under technobabble with no historical awareness. Less enthusiasm, more information.

In conclusion: as long as the user is choosing to activate a reader to follow a link on some real world item they are interested in, there is huge potential for certain types of information searches. For example: reading and storing a business card, storing a taxi number from an advert, picking up a discount token for a shop, triggering a link to a mapping servicve showing you how to get somewhere. Certainly there is more potential than the Bluetooth spam peddlers offer, who in my view risk alienating users by pushing links at anyone who strays too close. I can avoid looking at a billboard advertisement but I'd get really narked if my phone kept buzzing as I walked past shop windows - it's intrusive annoyance rather than passive background colour.


On to the other post: this dovetails nicely with the ideas discussed before on targeted niche apps driving mobile application take-up - there is no one killer app, because everyone is different and the mobile is a very personal device. VCs will be unhappy about this as there's no 2 second elevator pitch and no easy way to pour in money in the hope of forcing a sale or float before everyone realises it was a rubbish idea; they will likely continue pouring money into mobile social networking and other ideas that almost everyone thinks of within the first ten minutes of a brainstorming session. No-one has yet done these well because ultimately phone calls and SMS are the killer apps in the socializing field, and incremental improvements are more likely to win out then advertising-subsidised or subscription-based awkward add-ons. I digress - no need to add anything else, just read the article!

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