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.