The future of mobile..


What do users really want on mobile? Firstly, some 30% of North American traffic is coming from Apple devices, 20% for Western Europe (and 1% for rest of world..) The clamor for the iPhone is incredible and sure it’s a pretty enough device, but it turns out that their average user now has at 3 pages of apps.

Steve Jobs knows how to make you really want a shiny piece of hardware like a Mac, the iPod nailed the audio experience, but it’s the miracle of the Jesus phone that makes us want a lump of rather plain-looking plastic and glass. Give it to a child and they can poke their finger at it and make things happen. They’re captivated by the transitions, animation, media and games. A killer combination of a powerful touch interface, great graphics and iTunes makes for 30,000 apps in the store.

So now everyone wants a store. 10 stores, with as many differing development environments, developer programmes, contracts, payout schemes and partners. It’s completely unsustainable.

So what then? Does everyone just buy an iPhone?

z257810401I guess not. For a start, you can’t “text” on an iPhone anything like you can on the Motorola RAZR – a device universally slated in the mobile development space. When I say text, I mean send an SMS with one hand while your phone is under the table. If you’ve never done this you’re probably old, or American.

And it’s not pink. Take a trip to a phone store with a girl and they’ll usually go for the pink phone, or the one with diamondette studs. Ok, I’m overgeneralizing but you get the idea.

So, we can believe that manufacturers will continue to make different phones. But they most likely will not all be touchscreen or cost $3000 over two years.

But many different stores, each with their own development platform – I think we’ve already proved that making the same app many, many times doesn’t really work – just look at J2ME. And if you’re application 176 in the entertainment category, or worst still number 2436 in the games category, you are very definitely in the “long tail” – defined as the “zero sale tail”. For all the power of a store to break out of the advertising model (which as some pundits suggest, is dying a slow death – I’m not so sure but it’s an interesting point..) it looks like you’ve got to buy some to drive traffic to your app.

Application developers have a challenge then. For 3d games, they have to build an app – at least for the moment – but the browser has long been the application platform of the real Internet. What does this mean for mobile?

I think what it means is that the efforts to bring a Web 2.0 development environment to mobile are reinforced. With HTML/CSS/JavaScript/XHR there is the distinct possibility that most of the apps in the stores today can be done in the browser. Of course, it’s no magic bullet. Crappy HTML implementations will be around for many years to come on mobile – and JavaScript still drives fear into the hearts of many mobile engineers.

Coming back to the iPhone/iPod – 20-30% of traffic is enough to make it the single most important device by far – and if developers are making a WebKit version for Apple users it would be handy to reuse the same version for other phones as well. Certainly, it seems to be the trend amongst higher-end phones in the US – such as the Palm Pre and the Android G1.

icon-goldIt doesn’t mean there will be no other browsers in the world – but with WebKit being open source you could see a time when this was the case – but that device manufacturers and carriers will see WebKit as the gold standard, and everyone must sign up to the CSS extensions, scripting APIs, etc. The iPhone already has the offline storage capability which brings a more native-like experience ever closer. In the 3.0 OS there is access to location, the camera, etc. Android has this, I think the Pre does – and the OMTP, which is a large group of mobile carriers and manufacturers, has signed up to the BONDI initiative to provide safe access. Whether their work is simply bypassed by these new defacto extensions remains to be seen though.

So, applications are delivered through a WebKit browser, with specialist companies delivering games or other apps where there is sound reason to do so. Device manufacturers compete on the quality of their plastics and their user interfaces. Is it black, silver or pink? Large screen for your bag or tiny screen for your pocket. One device comes with games preloaded, another is touchscreen. Most people still want a keyboard..

070212-vodafone-shopBut what are carriers doing in the meantime? From my vantage point I see a lot of activity around capturing the mobile data experience. Mobile apps, on-device portals and integrations. Forays into location, navigation, social networking. It all seems a bit me-too and without any real compelling reason for their customers to switch from the desktop. Carriers are still the gatekeeper to their mobile playground, even if the walls have been taken down. Users don’t really want to type URLs if they can just press “web” on their phone and see enough links to service some basic tasks.

They are not so much data-pipes as a lot of ISPs have become – they configure and sell phones, have retail stores, etc – but they should probably stop messing around with their pet projects and better understand the world where their customers are using a lot of mobile data. Once developers can easily deliver compelling and rich sites to a larger volume of users – due to the iPhone influence on mobile browsers – they will develop them in the same way they do for the web today. Note that I’m not saying it’s the actual desktop web here, just a real browser with a tiny screen.

Carriers need to understand what they are good at – taking money from their users on a monthly basis – and provide a great service in return. Good quality voice (synchronous communication), SMS/MMS/mail (asynchronous communication) and data (WebKit browser with a decent portal that gets the user where they want to go).

We’ll see the majority of differentiation on brand and price. The services are more ubiquitous and “off deck”. Who knows, maybe old-school directory-type portals like Yahoo! will come back in fashion. Think about it – first time around you needed a portal as there was no decent search engine, and the name “amazon” did not roll off  your tongue. This time, it’s just awkward to type anything.

Easier to just poke your big fat finger on the screen 😉


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