Tuesday, November 18, 2008

There is no future of mobile

Or at least that was the title to my 6-minute talk at yesterday's Future of Mobile conference at Kensington Town Hall. I was one of the 6 x 6 bloggers (alongside peers Vero, Andrew, Ewan, Whatleydude and Jemima) and I had 6 minutes to wax lyrical about any topic I liked.

There was a sharp intake of breath as I announced there was no future to mobile. As you might imagine, as an advocate of all aspects of mobile technology, and especially mobile marketing, advertising and media, it was not a sentence the audience expected to hear coming from my lips.

[Photo courtesy of Justin Davies of NinetyTen]

But let me explain...

There are 6 reasons why, if we carry on the way we are going, there will be no future to mobile.

1. We carry on focusing on technology rather than people

The technology is a hygiene factor and not the raison d'etre. The technology needs to be reliable, affordable, usable, fast and context relevant. There are very few folks out there who care which gizmo or platform you're building on. They just want it to work. The technology needs to be invisible and seamless. And of course that's a challenge to developers and service providers, but the fact still remains that this is all about the people and not the technology.

2. We continue to have silly mobile tariffs

Why are mobile tariffs, let alone data tariffs so complicated? Why are the tariffs, in particular data tariffs, focused on contract customers who are prepared to commit to an 18 month contract when 60% or more of the UK's mobile customers are on prepay phones and either won't (it's too scary, don't know what to expect, or are transient) or can't (poor credit rating) change to a contract. But more than that, why are they going to switch to a contract to use mobile data if they have no idea what the experience is going to be like?

Back in the early days of the internet, internet service providers, like Freeserve (now Orange), revolutionised internet access by introducing the penny a minute tariff up to a maximum of £12.99 a month. You knew that if you were online for 10 minutes, it would cost you 10p. You knew it would never cost you more than £12.99 a month. You didn't have to have a contract and therefore it removed the risk. Admittedly dial-up could be a bit flaky, websites could be a bit slow to load (sound familiar huh), but still folks could try it risk and commitment-free. And it meant a huge increase in internet usage.

3. We create applications and services for people like us

There was an excellent turnout at the Future of Mobile and I'm guessing that 99% of the people in the room were Promobs - as in professional or "super" mobile users. You know the type - have a N95 in one hand whilst checking their email on their blackberry in their other hand and live streaming qik at the same time.

The trouble is, the market is full of people who are *not* like us. Our customers are normal people. The ones who use their phones for talking and texting. The ones who have no idea that they may need new firmware or may need to change their handset settings. My family is a case in point.. bearing in mind I've been working in the mobile industry for more than 8 years, you wouldn't be able to tell that by my own family's usage of mobile technology...

My sister, well she's just about changed her ringtone and clings on to her Nokia 3310.

My brother has a Motorola Razr and when he got it, thought it was a seriously cool phone (and more to the point, thought I would think the same).

My parents are just too elderly now to get their heads round mobile technology. It's too complicated to learn, their fingers aren't as nimble as they used to be and they just don't have a need. They've lived their long lives without mobile technology. In fact a lot of their lives was lived without telephony in the home at all.

My nieces - well it's all about SMS and to a lesser extent listening to music (and sharing music files via bluetooth). The perception of mobile data to them is still that it's scarily expensive and a £5 a month commitment just so they can check facebook is just a step to far to the average teenager or twenty-something.

And my Auntie, well she just loves to chat. Whether it's a landline or a mobile, she doesn't care. She just wants to talk.

So my question to you is how do we create useful, relevant, entertaining, interesting services for Normobs so that we can bring them into our mobile world without dragging them there kicking and screaming in pain at the experience? How do we create that demand?

4. We continue to nurture the culture gap

Yes, there is. There's a culture gap between web people and mobile people. I've met a lot of people in both camps on the development and the commercial side and in the main, they really don't talk each other's language. Web centric folks can't understand why mobile folks put up with the complexity of the development task let alone trying to access the internet via a 2 inch screen. And then add in the disconnect with the handset folks and the web and the mobile development folks. And then add in the network operators. And then add in brands and agencies and we have a melting pot of folks who just don't understand each other. And in many cases don't even want to play nicely together in the playground due to perceptions about each other that are largely unfounded.

So I have a request that we are more open with each other. That we try to understand each other's points of view so that we can all move forward together in this brave new world.

5. We remain Western-Centric

The next billion customers are not going to come from the USA, the UK or the rest of Europe. The next billion customers are not in the West. This means that the "rest of the world" is not bogged down with the feeling that the internet on mobile experience is second best to the full fat internet on a laptop or desktop screen. It means that they can leapfrog technology rather than go through the evolution that we are still experiencing. And it means that there will be innovation based on needs today and solving problems today rather than working on 'the next big thing'. The speed of growth of mobile penetration in India, China, Africa, South America is phenomenal. This is where we'll see innovation. This is where we'll see real people come up with new ways to use mobile technology to solve their day to day problems or enhance their day to day lives.

6. We forget that the mobile phone is a communication device

It was designed for us to talk to each other. It was designed for us to be able to communicate with our friends, family, colleagues and lovers by voice, text, instant message, email, facebook, twitter, whatever. But it's about communication. In every region of the world, mobile data traffic is largely driven by social networking - whether that's Peperonity, Cyworld, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter - it doesn't really matter. It does mean that it's the human communication that's important to us and drives the desire to explore mobile devices further in order to find other ways to communicate with loved ones.

The mobile phone is personal, it's precious, it's an object of desire and it's our access to the outside world. It's also a necessity and a basic tool to participate in UK society (according to the latest Joseph Rowntree report).

So please, don't abuse my mobile life by clogging it up with stuff that doesn't work, stuff that is memory hungry, stuff I don't need or want. Think about the real people who are using real phones in real life and make their mobile life better. And maybe then, just then, there'll be a future of mobile.

Update: After my session, I did a short audio interview with the lovely Jemima Kiss discussing my talk a little more and it's now live on The Guardian.

Update 2: My talk was video-recorded by Mauricio Reyes. He also caught my fellow 6 x 6 bloggers.

Future of Mobile 08 6x6 Bloggers perspective #3 from Mauricio Reyes on Vimeo.


  1. Anonymous6:03 pm GMT

    Nice. Can't disagree with any of this.

    I wasn't there, but not much of the conference seemed to be about the future.

    The endless navel gazing is tiresome. Browser, tariffs, operators, blah blah.

    I guess your "promobs" (nice) can run around thinking that they represent everyone else's future. Therefore, no challenging forward thinking is particularly required.

    It's pretty rare to see really visionary stuff presented these days (except highly photoshopped concept art from NTT, Nokia & Samsung research labs - which I love!).

    On the other hand, tomorrow is the start of the future, so maybe we should stop blogging about it and just get on with making the damn thing ;-)

  2. Anonymous11:04 pm GMT

    Tremendous post Helen, and a great tonic too.

    I made a similar point about 3/4 of the way through a panel on 'Mobilizing The Masses' at SXSW in 2007 (podcast here http://tinyurl.com/6hdz2j), and mostly the assembled mobilistas didn't get it, although as you know my Irish accent is terribly difficult to comprehend ;-)

    Picking up on the point from there, and from the themes of your post, do you think that the mobile services and innovations (that really make a difference to people's lives and to society) that will emerge from the developing world in the next year or so will continue to be based around voice and text? Or will mobile web and wifi start to make their mark?

  3. Thanks for your comments guys. And judging by the traffic I've had on this post today, it looks like I've hit a nerve.

    @JamesPearce I think it's hard for us to comprehend the truly visionary stuff - it may not be visionary to us in Europe or the US but is totally revolutionary in Namibia for example. Sometimes we're just too close to it and can't see the wood for the trees. And yes, we should just be getting on with it.

    @DeirdreMolloy Actually, I think there is already more mobile web activity in countries like India and South Africa and innovation in those countries will not just be around voice and text. In fact, if you look at Admob's monthly metrics, you'll see that Americans are browsing from Motorola Razrs and mobile browsing in India is predominantly on Nokia Series 60 smartphones (even though there is no 3G there yet). One of the key reasons why mobile internet is key in these markets is because it's so cheap. I'm not sure about the applicability of wifi. There's little fixed line telco infrastructure in many emerging economies so mobile feels like it's the way to go. That said, if wifi can be provided cheaply and without putting copper in the ground, then it may take off beyond the business sector.

    As for innovation, the kinds of services we'll see will be country dependent. For example, South Africa is a much easier market to play around with bluetooth and location based services, so there's innovation happening in that area there. In parts of Africa, m-pesa micro-banking is changing real lives.

    Even in Europe, in countries like Turkey, there is much innovation because Turkcell is not bogged down with legacy systems and seems to be prepare to take a risk by introducing new services and new ideas like their ringback tone youth campaign. Ok, it might not change the world but it's a really innovative use of mobile marketing that is win/win for consumer and advertiser.

    I think it's still an exciting industry to be involved in but we still have things to fix *today* before worrying too much about tomorrow.

  4. Anonymous12:43 pm GMT

    Great piece! Got here from Tom Hume's blog coverage of "Future of Mobile" (http://www.tomhume.org/2008/11/future-of-mobile-2008.html).

    I'm working in the Japanese mobile industry, and what you wrote about mobile devices ("So please, don't abuse my mobile life by clogging it up with stuff that doesn't work, stuff that is memory hungry, stuff I don't need or want") rings so true. A typical 3G mobile device by a Japanese manufacturer has approx. 2,000 functions. I'm also on a business trip to the U.S. this week and was astounded to find out iPhone App Store is taking off so huge here - I realize that users want basic communications functions - voice call and SMS at most - preinstalled, but anything else to make their phone become convenient - they just download it WHEN they need it. I'm so tired of carriers and manufacturers trying to own users! I was not at the event, but way to go with your statement!

  5. You know, Helen, I think all these realisations are a function of having been doing this stuff for as long as we both have, because you have just summarised (in almost exactly the same order) the first 6 slides of my day-in, day-out presentation. Great post.

  6. Helen, I must say this is probably one of the most interesting and insightful post's i've read. So well thought out and eloquent. Fantastic! Will post it on my blog tomorrow (today)

  7. Anonymous4:58 am GMT

    To my understanding, The requirements of the new markets are already met with existing technologies (say voice, texting etc.,) what do you think is required from handset makers?
    I completely agree that operators have a lot to do in using these technologies (like cheap data calls, improving the reliability of service)

  8. Anonymous2:35 pm GMT

    Amazing how 6 mins can turn into a full conversation.
    Just to pick up on something I think I heard you say on Mon but do not see in your post: there's clearly a 'culture gap' between web and mobile, but there is also a significant one between mobile and advertising.

  9. @Krishna I think there is still a lot of work to be done around making the operating systems work well, making the most of battery life and making it easy to add new things as you want. Phones are still buggy and the need to update firmware render them unusable for a lot of people.

    As for the kinds of functionality that's needed above and beyond sms, voice and alarm clocks - well that's going to depend on the market and I'm not qualified to make a comment on those markets as I've not studied them in enough depth. My recommendation is for you to go find out more about your customers and design for them.

    @Sergio Yes, it's amazing what a 6 minute talk can generate and I'm hugely flattered with the resulting conversations at Future of Mobile, here on the blog, on twitter and privately via email.

    To go back to your point re culture gap, you're absolutely right. The deepest culture gap, where there shouldn't be one, is between the mobile and web industries. But on top of that there's a gap between them and the mobile network operators and then again between all of them and the brands and agencies who are interested in advertising and marketing to customers.

    @Jon I'm glad it's not just me thinking these things! And yes, it probably is because we've been in this game such a long time.

    @anonymous The Japanese scenario sounds barking mad! 2,000 functions!! Blimey. We seem to have made our mobile lives very complex. That said, to date, downloading applications hasn't been simple and I'm interested to see how the new google app store fares and also what is going to happen with the new Symbian Foundation equivalent. We do want to be able to do cool things on our phones, particularly smartphone customers, so anything that eases that process has to be a good thing.

    @kcjhdesign - look forward to reading the blog post.

  10. Anonymous10:28 am GMT

    Wholeheartedly agree with your views although as you quite rightly point out via issue 5 (Western centric thinking)the target audience for this piece is really the mobile community in the developed northern hemisphere.

    In many developing markets the problems outlined by you have already either disappeared or have been significantly moderated and there is a significant amount of innovation in this space (even by the odd mobile operator...:)
    Having said that even in a market like South Africa which is a fantastic mobile media market mainly due to very poor PC Internet penetration and very low mobile data rates, the large existing local publishers have still not quite figured out how to exploit this - refer to a recent blog post of mine on this at

    Whilst I agree that the 6 issues outlined need to be addressed I am of the opinion that the challenge for mobile media practioners in industialised well penetrated broadband internet markets is always going to be somewhat different to that of the developing markets: in Western Europe, the UK and the US the succesful models will probably be built around how the mobile medium complements traditional and web media, while in developing economies the primary strategies are likely to revolve around mobile as a "first screen" medium.

  11. All your points are very valid I think Helen.

    It amuses me how so many people in the rich world (western, eastern, whatever) professional mobile community scoff and sneer at WAP (yes, WAP, not XHTML!) apps or build for an advanced subset of XHTML users, or think that widgets are the only way to go, or that SMS is only for person to person, marketing messages, and content download links. Such limited thinking!

    Time for another sharp intake of breath from the audience - (Generally) I don't think mobile network operators understand mobile. Yeah, really. All I ever hear is how they're doing something else to screw it up for those with vision. Oh sure they're experts in the infrastructure, but as to what to do with it - what to REALLY do with it - understanding the potential - they haven't got much of a clue. Yes, even with billions in revenue.

    And what's more, (again, generalising) many mobile professionals also lack a clue as they saturate the market with clever but useless apps and services that have a hard time finding users even in the rich "throw away a few quid on the latest rubbish" world, and that these apps will somehow be a great success the world over.

    Thinking selfishly, this ignorance and shortsightedness is a good thing as the opportunities for those with an open mind and some vision are huge. But that is not the right attitude. The bottom line is making the tech better and more accessible for more people on the planet. And that means all or most of us approaching them on THEIR terms, taking THEIR needs into account. (This is not just some patronising statement referencing people in mud huts the other side of the planet, it appeals equally to bamboozled users in all societies). And yes, I'm often as clueless as the next person, in the rich world self-congratulatory mobile communities I inhabit :)

    Here's a stat to mull over: around 800 million people in the world are illiterate. They will overlap significantly with the number of mobile users in the world. Now you can bung all the SMS, WAP, XHTML and mobile internet functionality at them you like, but it'll all be completely useless to them. What, for example, are we doing for these people, in terms of apps? Why do apps have to be visual? Now there's a thought... :)

    Alex Kerr

  12. Helen,
    Great post! I could not agree more. With 8 years in mobile content and media I can see completely where you come from. And you are right. There is no future if the rate of change on the important issues you list is high engough.

    At Acemob have just seen the mobile advertising revenue from one of our projects hit a wall literally. The world recession has made advertisers go back to basics and sorry, mobile advertising had not made it into the category of proven and safe harbour advertising channels.

    I have been on this subject myself a few times at my blog at mobiletribe.com, but I give it to you that this was the best piece I ever saw.

    One piece to go a bit further with could be how the mobile operators are abusing their billing monopoly.

    Keep up the good work!

  13. Anonymous12:05 am GMT

    Very good post.

    While I was reading it I felt it was a compilation of thoughts and feelings I have had for the past years while working in the mobile business.


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