Solving the mobile equation (yet again)

The past few days I have watched a lot of people writing about Mobile Internet.  Not surprising as one of the most important mobile conferences is taking place in Barcelona right now and a lot of companies are using that conference to launch their mobile initiatives. I am a bit disappointed to hear what seems to be happening there right now. What strikes me most is that mobile operators simply do not have a clue how to position themselves in the mobile Internet arena. They have taken a great beating from non-mobile companies like Yahoo and Google and still really don’t know what hit them exactly. According to a post in Ars Technica even the top executive Mr Sarin of the largest mobile operator worldwide, Vodafone, doesn’t know what to do.

Mobile carriers need to step up their game and make mobile services easier to use, says Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin, lest they willingly hand over business to media giants like Google. Sarin made the comments when speaking to the press during this week’s Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, admitting that his industry has not traditionally done a good job in making new mobile services appealing to users. Not doing anything to fix that, will be the industry’s biggest mistake, he said.

And another quote from that article:

Mobile carriers have the experience and opportunity to keep these customers from slipping away. But in order to do so, they have to offer something up besides a means for other companies to transport data. “Customers want social networking, email, SMS, instant messaging, voice—you name it,” Sarin said. “Communication is our core business. We have to be in all of these spaces.”

Oh boy is he in trouble. Let’s see where he is coming from. Traditionally, Mobile operators have one advantage that other companies don’t have. They offer access to the mobile network. Mobile operators have the monopoly on that. They own the network and monetize users accessing it. There was never a need for the operators to even think about user experience or user services. No need to compete over services, just deliver access and use clever marketing techniques to make your mobile brand more interesting than the other mobile brands. And that is fine in a world where access and the ability to communicate anywhere is the most important user value.

The same thing happened when the Internet grew big in the 90’s. People all went to Internet access providers because they needed access. That was fine for a while, but then other companies realised that once people were on-line there was a much bigger revenue stream available to those that provided the user value in services. There isn’t a single Internet access company that has successfully made the switch from access to user value services.You still get charged for access, but you probably don’t use their e-mail service or spam filters or whatever service any more. E-mail is free and with more storage you can imagine. Other companies filled the gap with anti-virus, spam, and content services. And the Internet access companies are stuck to do what they do best, provide access. They have all tried to create their own content services and failed. They have tried to build advertisement platforms but others moved much faster. It is the penalty for a company that provides nothing more than a pretty expensive plumbing system underlying our on-line experiences.

So Mr Sarin and all other mobile operator executives can try to become user value service providers but they will fail at it. Google, Yahoo, and many other companies have already taken up that part of the revenue stream. They couldn’t be bothered by mobile networks, access technology and the like. They concentrate on what matters in the end. The user experience. Marginalising the role of the Mobile operator to what it does best, providing access.

And then I read this article which talks about a panel discussion between user experience and technology experts during the Mobile World congress. A quote from the article:

The panel, whose title was It’s the User Experience, Stupid agreed that iPhone represents a model for mobile operators to follow, but they reached little agreement on how to follow.

One direction, advocated by Lucia Predolin, international marketing and communications director for Buongirono S.p.A. of Milan, Italy, is to manipulate users by identifying their “need states” — including such compulsions as “killing time,” and “making the most of it” — and fulfilling them subliminally.

Adobe’s Murarka proposed a more technological approach to improving the user experience, satisfying the mobile phone subscriber through better interface design. Sarah Lipman, co-founder and R&D director for Power2B, suggested an almost mystical solution, somehow tapping into users’ “neural networks” to navigate a mobile phone interface “using touch and pre-touch input.”

Never, never trust an International Marketing and Communications director that wants to “manipulate” users. Or someone that wants to “tap into users neural networks”. These people do not have a clue. If this is the innovating power from the mobile industry we will remain in a mobile stone age for a bit longer.

Apple understood that usability, status, and the ability to show of yet another cool device where the first step into improving the mobile experience with their launch of the iPhone. Before the iPhone usability sucks on almost any mobile device. And I’m not the only one that feels that way. It turns out that Apple iPhone users perform 50 times more search requests than other mobile phone users. What is interesting to me, which isn’t mentioned in the source, is whether the searches are performed using the mobile network or a WiFi network. Big difference in my opinion, as the first one costs the uer money, while the second option simply turns the iPhone into a small handheld computer.

In another article it is even suggested that within a few years the number of mobile search requests will overtake fixed Internet searches. Which is true, but sort of obvious. Already here are more mobile devices on the planet than there are fixed Internet computers. If we marginally decrease the complexity to be able to access the web mobile, then people are bound to start using search engines. Good news for Google? They think so.

I do not necessarily agree with that. While more search suggest more advertisement revenues I can’t help but think that we don’t need more search. We need an entire different information access paradigm that is build upon the foundation of a small mobile device. Instead of the current “let’s copy our laptop web experience and cram it on a device with a screen no larger than a few inches and pretty unusable input interfaces”. We definitely need to improve the usability of mobile devices, but before that we need a revolution in mobile UI thinking.

Is Yahoo’s announcement of their new mobile service OneConnect the answer to this? Not sure about that. I saw a demo video of the new service that is to launch in the third quarter of this year and although it combines all kinds of social networks into a single portal, it seems rather complex and technical to me.  Sure, it’s cool they can connect all major social networks and track people on them, but in itself that is a technical solution to a problem I haven’t experienced yet.  What underlying user value has lead to this service other than “lets make sure we can connect to all these cool services so that we can get lots of users and a big market share. Can you imagine trying to set up that service on your mobile phone and actually make it work with a single button press? Now that would be a cool trick. Honestly, I did ask for such a service last year already, I still wonder if Yahoo has been reading up on my blog. They got me one thing I asked for, but forgot the other great ideas I mentioned in that post ;-)

Mobile is considered the most important growth market. Forget the Internet, mobile is where the action will be the coming years. Maybe that’s why Microsoft has replaced its entire management team on Mobile. With massive markets waiting to be unlocked in India, China, Africa, there is more money to be made on the mobile web than the fixed web. But if we have to wait for these 10 most important trends from the Mobile World congress I would say dream on. There are lots of little, currently unknown companies out there that understand human behaviour, mobile technology and user needs on the move. These companies will come with services not thought of before. And some of them will become as big as Google and Yahoo now are on the Web.

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About vanelsas

See my about page, http://vanelsas.wordpress.com/about/ ;-)
This entry was posted in Apple, Google, iPhone, Microsoft, Mobile Internet, Mobile World Congress, OneConnect, Vodafone, Yahoo and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Solving the mobile equation (yet again)

  1. Hello Mr. van Elsas,

    while you complain about Yahoo not having followed you up on your ideas…neither has Nokia considered the recommendations I made in the Diploma thesis in 2002 and neither has Vodafone after awarding me the “UMTS-Award in Business Solutions for Baden-Württemberg” in 2003. I strongly agree with you, that currently NO MOBILE OPERATOR EVEN HAS THE SLIGHTEST CLUE as to where the voyage is going. However, my sails are set.

    Greetings from the European Satellite Navigation competition Kick-Off in Starnberg Germany

    Markus Salamon

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