The Failure and Future of Mobile Content

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Players and analysts in the Handheld Industry have blamed everything short of former president Richard Nixon for the failure of mobile content to blossom as expected. They’ve repeatedly lowered their forecasts for demand and revenue, all the while predicting, in lockstep, that the mobile content market will explode “any day now.” The truth, however, is that mobile content has not gained traction in either the enterprise or consumer market for one simple reason: it provides little, if any, value.

Steve's AvatarIn this article we’ll identify some of the hollow excuses used in recent months to circumvent the candid admission that the emperor has no clothes. Further, we’ll describe the likely evolution of mobile content from its current doldrums towards a service that will provide value for – and therefore generate demand from – mobile users.

The Cat Ate My Content

Let’s start with the common buzz words and industry terms that have been proffered to investors to explain the lethargic state of mobile content. Some of these rest upon a kernel of truth. Most, however, are self-referential myths that, even when delivered sincerely, act only to divert the industry from some painful self-reflection.

Myth #1: It’s a technical problem

  • Many people have blamed the technology that delivers content to mobile devices. While it is not my intent to further bludgeon WAP (the Wireless Access Protocol developed by OpenWave), with its gruesome navigation and walled content, the technology was certainly over-hyped and under-powered from its inception. Although it remains on life-support, fed intravenously by some continuing contracts with large phone manufacturers and carriers, it awaits a miracle for resurrection.
  • The phone manufacturers have received perhaps more than their fair share of blame. Trying to input a web address – much less replying at length to an email – via a mobile phone’s keypad is akin to shoving an elephant through a porthole. The first experience is thrilling, much like seeing the elephants trunk slide easily through. By the second or third session, frustration sets in and muscle strain looms. The advent of “predictive input” like T9 only greases the elephant; The task is still impossible.
  • The delay in American and European 3G networks – and their fantastic promises of vast bandwidth, lightning speeds, and negligible costs per packet – has also been labeled as the culprit in the failure for mobile content to grow. Pundits speak of video phones (which will rely upon these futuristic networks to function) as the killer application that will finally bring mobile content into the mainstream. However, this seems highly implausible, as evidenced by the failure of video conferencing and streaming video to catch on in the desktop world, despite its fast and wide DSL and T1 connections.

Myth #2: It’s a management problem

  • A few analysts (well, actually a lot of analysts) in the handheld space have accused the telecommunication carriers of incompetence and ignorance in the realm of content. Perhaps Sprint and Vodaphone executives understand voice, these pundits concede, but they’re lost in a world of data. I might offer another explanation. In search of increased ARPU (average revenue per user; a great acronym for Bay Area mixers), perhaps these carriers have been sufficiently burned by the lackluster tests they have conducted so far, and are thoughtfully waiting for more proven and profitable formulae before attempting to tame this jungle.

Myth #3: It’s an economics problem, or no cash post-crash

  • One of my favorite hollow myths is multi-tiered. The argument goes like this. The adoption pattern for web technologies predicts that services only really succeed once they are embraced by IT managers in the enterprise. This market is like a locked safe: difficult to enter, but replete with cash once you’ve found the key. The current world recession has dampened enterprise investment, especially in forward-looking infrastructure projects. Hence, according to this line of thought, mobile content will revive in step with the economy. This line of reasoning is sound, save for one small contradictory fact: the success of handheld devices themselves has been built upon the consumer market first. There is no doubt that the current recession has hurt investment in and demand for mobile information. However, as we emerge from this economic downturn, I do not predict that mobile content – in its current incarnation – will also revive.

Myth #4: It’s a bad experience

  • Finally, some suggest that Mobile Web content has failed because it offers a service that pales in comparison to a desktop or laptop web experience. Once a consumer has surfed Yahoo! via a fast cabled connection on a large color screen with a mouse and full keyboard for navigation and input, the experience on a handheld device is unfulfilling.

Going in the wrong direction, and getting there slowly

It is this last justification that I find most sound. The current generation of mobile content will always be the ugly stepsister to a rich desktop experience. However, there are four increasing sophisticated and valuable descendants of mobile content that we should consider before pounding that final nail in its coffin.

First Generation: Same but smaller

The goal of WAP, web clipping, and several other proxy-based technologies is to take content that has been created for the desktop and slim it down for a handheld screen and bandwidth. While the translation technologies are improving, the results will always be the same – a slow subset of the content that the consumer has come to expect from a desktop machine, delivered to a small screen with poor tools for navigating or inserting my own data.

Checking my bank balances or email on my mobile device via a wireless connection is a novelty while sitting in an airport lounge. However, since most people either carry a cell phone (to call the automated banking system) or a laptop (for full Microsoft Office access), these are redundant services.

This first step is natural and necessary. Only the large web houses – who already have sophisticated sites and recognizable brands – have the money to attempt any version of mobile content. They were the first to optimize for WAP, web clipping, and Pocket Internet Explorer. These companies walked across hot coals in search of enlightenment, and only have charred feet to show for it.

Second Generation: Alerts

Recognizing that most people carry a mobile device everywhere, several Internet players have added alerts to their sites. If my stock values plummet, or my wife sends me an urgent email, my phone or handheld device can alert me and provide a small amount of the message. Usually, ironically, the action that the message directs the recipient to undertake requires a desktop computer with full Internet access. Hence, the mobile device isn’t a stand-alone tool, but instead a neon pointer to a more capable desktop computer.

I would insert wireless email in this category. Whether delivered on a phone, a Blackberry device, or more multi-function device running the Palm or Pocket PC operating systems, these alerts serve primarily to remind me to return to my desktop for important information. No system to date can act as a replacement for the desktop in the email realm, even for the most adventurous of mobile travelers.

Third Generation: Exclusively mobile

Try this from your desktop computer: Using the web, find the nearest place (of any chain or brand) to your home or office that offers unleaded gasoline. For extra credit, find the one that offers the cheapest gasoline.

This is a tough assignment because the typical desktop (or laptop) user is seated at his desk, concentrating on issues other than his car in the parking lot. It is only when the red warning light on the gas gauge illuminates that such an issue matters, and it quickly jumps to the top of the priority list.

This third generation heralds mobile content that has no desktop analog. There has been much talk about location-based services, where the device can geographically locate itself and surrounding landmarks and then (here’s the crucial piece) offer an intelligent answer to a very specific question, like “where’s the nearest gas station.” A few small companies have tried to collect this data, add the back-end processing, and even partner with hardware companies to allow the handsets to know where they are. Most of these are now Dot Rubble.

Another example would be adding location to personalization: if I’m at home, don’t send me corporate emails. If I’m in Bermuda, don’t send me emails at all. If I’m at the mall, find discounts and specials for nearby stores, pre-screened for my tastes and budget. Hence, location is only a single attribute of a service that is more attuned to the user’s location, schedule, habits, goals, and even mood.

This generation will arrive when several stars align. First, location data (for both the mobile device and the stationary gas station) must be readily available in a standard format to all web services. Second, mobile devices must have the capacity to locate themselves. This might be GPS, but could also be achieved via peer-to-peer connections with other nearby devices where only one needs to be region-aware (perhaps because it’s a wirelessly enabled yet stationary desktop computer).

Fourth Generation: The Disappearance of Mobile Content

For all of this talk about the potential for value of mobile content, I have a confession to make. I don’t care where my data comes from: my handheld device, my desktop, my intranet, or various sites on the Internet. The last action I want to perform while driving in the rain looking for a gas station is to browse the web on my mobile device.

The pinnacle of mobile content will arrive when the source of the data disappears from my eyes. Let me illustrate with an example. When I book an electronic plane ticket, I cut-and-paste the details into my handheld computer’s date book. The time that such information is the most valuable to me is not while I’m in front of my computer, but instead when I’m at a restaurant, wondering when I should leave for the airport. Currently, a few airlines are experimenting with technology that will perform the cut-and-paste operation automatically. Although the set-up time to enable this functionality far exceeds the time-savings it provides, this is still a nice step.

However, no service exists to update my flight itinerary via my device’s wireless connection if there are any changes. For this, I must return to the content or, if I’m lucky, an alert, from previous generations. What I would much prefer is for this content to update automatically and seamlessly. Again, I don’t care where the data comes from, I simply want it immediately, integrated into my schedule.

Remember that this paradigm is contrary to our everyday experience on the web. Most desktop operating systems separate data based on the application that can create or display it: Microsoft Word for word processing, Internet Explorer for HTML, etc. I am held hostage by the applications I use. This fourth generation requires a major shift in our thinking. Instead, I would like my computer to create, organize, and retrieve information according to my life and patterns. While important for a desktop computer, it is vital for a mobile device, where the user lacks the time or desire to remember file types in order to find the necessary piece of information.

Some say that Microsoft’s .NET and Sun’s Java technologies have the capability to perform this integration across applications and across sources of data. To date, the former looks like bluster and the latter has yet impacted device-side mobile computing.

With this integration of data sources, intelligent agents (like disco, they keep reappearing!) will have much more information to manage and massage.

But that’s a topic for another time. 

About the author
Ted Ladd is a productivity fanatic, focusing on the technology and habits surrounding organization and communication. He held several roles at Palm, Inc. since 1998, from developer relations to enthusiast marketing to company spokesman. He and his wife now operate a management and technology consulting business in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Please send comments to or, better yet, visit the Brighthand Forum listed at the bottom of each article.



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