Solving the Mobile Internet equation

There is a lot of talk going on about mobile services. Especially Location Based Services (LBS) get a lot of attention. A few posts that drew my attention:

Om Malik wrote a short overview article of the deals that have been made in this business, showing that big investments are being made now.  There is an overview of different Location Based services here.

The NY Times gave a warning in several posts about the privacy concerns in their articles “Google’s Purchase of Jaiku Raises New Privacy Issues”and “Privacy Lost: these phones can find you”.

Steve Ballmer who used the same metaphor I used in earlier articles calls the mobile phone a universal remote control for your life (I like that metaphor, obviously).

Different announcements on new services, for example, Whrrl is Yelp plus Twitter (who comes up with these names?), and BluePulse shows you how to compete with Facebook and MySpace by offering social network capabilities only for mobile.

And finally Walt Mossberg started a lively discussion in  his post “Free my phone” which he makes the following comparison:

That’s why I refer to the big cellphone carriers as the “Soviet ministries.” Like the old bureaucracies of communism, they sit athwart the market, breaking the link between the producers of goods and services and the people who use them.

On a more personal experience, I watched a short live streaming show yesterday when a friend of mine send out a Twitter message in which he invited anyone to look at his live streaming conversation he had at that precise moment in a cafe in Amsterdam.

So what can we make of all this? Well, for starters, bloggers and investors like mobile. At the same time I think it will take some time for the mobile internet to become a hit. There are still many problems to be solved for mass adoption.

Why do you think SMS is THE killer data application for mobile? It is simple to use and supports a need for instant interaction to its users. All reasonable successful mobile services use SMS as their main interaction interface. And this is not just because it is simple. A major barrier for service creators to solve is the habits mobile users have. SMS has become such a major usage driver in mobile that it will be very hard to replace that with, for example, a graphical UI. In order to replace SMS as the main interface from Mobile to Internet (and any cell phone company will want that to increase ARPU=usages=$) you need interfaces that are as easy and quick to use as SMS is currently. Asking the user to change habit is very hard to do.

In that sense I am a bit skeptical about all these social network services that pop up, especially the location based services. I am not claiming they won’t become the next hit, but I do feel there is a lot of opportunism and technological innovation taking place that doesn’t really answer the “what is in it for the user’ question.

Just look at the examples that are provided to show the “convenience”of Location Based Services. The NY Times article quotes a user that when seeing her friends were too far away to make it on time to a meeting, she decided to leave later as to arrive at the same time. And she didn’t have to call her friends to tell them.

Pleazzzzzze, who came up with that being a killer app for LBS? This will never do, it totally bypasses the NEED of people to interact. How often do you find yourself in a conversation with someone on a mobile asking him where is and when he will arrive? It is the most important question being asked by voice and SMS? And now we don’t need that anymore?

Or the “if I walk around in a shopping mall I get harassed by all these great promotions of stores nearby” example. I don’t have a NEED for that. The whole reason I am shopping is that I want to take time to explore and buy things I am looking for. Without everyone screaming at me to come to their store. Imagine people physically standing in front of stores trying to pull you in as soon as you walk by (ever been in Egypt on a market?). It sucks, and I doubt many users would like it.

The problem with most startups that are in the mobile services business is that they tend to take cool technology and build all these services around them without really thinking about human behavior or needs. Forcing their high tech services onto the mass will not lead to the main stream adoption they are all looking for. And the fact that important tech bloggers like to use them is only a very small and perhaps insignificant indicator for success.

In my opinion (for what it is worth) the same thing holds for the development of mobile services as for any other. Keep it simple, hide all technological features and focus on human needs.

The need to interact with friends is BY FAR the most important one to focus on. And I don’t mean interaction in social networks perse. A simple example, I am using Twitter now and although it is meant to work as a microblogging tool, it is most fun when it becomes an interaction tool. If there is no interaction, Twitter makes me a groupie instead of a friend, and that just doesn’t work for me.

Start building open and simple to use interaction building blocks before we start focusing on browser-based mobile services. Solve the “getting my message to my friends and back” problem first, allowing not only text but also pictures and perhaps video to be send and received. MMS is not an option for this as it doesn’t work across all phones. If the problem can be solved across main stream cell phones and using open and standardised modules, then mass adoption becomes reachable.

From that, connecting the mobile phone to Internet based services, using these open and standardised modules will be the next important step. Forget about ads, or too much promotions,  as they will not work on mobile phones. Too much of an invasion of my private space as a user. Instead, think about the business models that actually work on mobile phones, that is payed services! Rolf Skyberg predicts that “free services” in the end are doomed to fail and I agree with him, although I am not sure yet how we can migrate successfully from free (ad based) services to payed services.

I do believe that privacy might become an issue with all the new capabilities. Here lies a great response for the user, but also for the service creator to protect the naive user! Revealing locations might sound like a lot of fun, but if it is not controlled by the user in a simple and effective way, the results might be disastrous (without him realising it).

So how about it? What do you think of these developments? What are the needs of mobile users and how can we support those needs in a simple and effective way?


About vanelsas

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This entry was posted in Google, interaction, Jaiku, Location Based Services, Mobile Internet, privacy, SMS, Walter Mossberg and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Solving the Mobile Internet equation

  1. omfut says:

    Thanks for adding my post link to your article.
    I disagree with you on this:
    Sms is a killer app, no denial; I doubt anyone wants to replace this. Infact there are companies that use sms as transport for location based service. But, you would want a slick interface on the mobile using which u want can do more than sending sms message. For e.g.: using some kind of Google map mashup on mobile, I want to track my kids on the mobile. I can see so many different user interaction scenarios using these apps. Privacy control is always an issue; you can always opt out of these communications.
    Iam a shopping freak and I would love a service that can provide me some updates on the sale that is going on in the shopping mall i entered. You can always opt for your favorite brands and block others. Selective listening.

  2. Alexander van Elsas says:

    Omfut. I currently use a Nokia N95 which has a much better UI than any previous model I won. But honestly, it still performs lousy on the Internet. The screen is small, the input I need to do when interacting on the Internet is still awkward (try moving a “mouse” pointer on your mobile. But perhaps the iPhone and the new Nokia with qwerty keyboard might help this. We definitely need some thinking about development of more easy to use mobiel interfaces.
    In regards to your shopping habits. I guess I am a very different person. The sale thing will work every once in a while, but in the end I fear it will flood you. And then you are the one that needs to actively do something about it (opt out), something I find weird as the mobile phone is your personal space. It should not be invaded by ads in my opinion.

  3. There are two points below: Interactivity & Symmetry.

    1. Interactivity
    Search can get pretty personal by tracking preferences – yet the Ads work well, in fact, even better.

    Email is as personal as it gets, yet the Gmail Ads are non-intrusive and give me value.

    But neither Search, nor Email, are as quick to disseminate information, or interactive, as operating in a shared environment or getting SMS. So I would not make the case for Ads vs. Personal space, as much as Ads vs. Interactivity.

    A monetization model for our new Web, would therefore need to be event-driven/interactive. Marketing, i.e. the ability to interact in realtime with customers and get rapid feedback, is the next obvious step beyond Ads.

    2. Symmetry
    The old-world Ad model is also asymmetric. People who use the system (search/email) are different from people who advertise. In the new world, the monetization engine would need to be more symmetric, i.e. people who use the system for networking/sharing, would also be the ones actively engaging in transactions, either for their own services (recruiters, teachers, advisors, realtors, etc.), or for third-party products (affiliate marketing)

    Take the previous comment – it may not be the shopkeeper who directly sends me an SMS promotion on walking in to the store, but it may be the fact that my friend who has purchased something from the store is the trigger for promotion. Definitely interactive, and has the element of symmetry, i.e. my friend is the agent for the promotion. In return, my friend himself may get some points added to his frequent buyer card from the merchant – and that’s a separate interactive/symmetric event.

  4. Alexander van Elsas says:

    @Srini, thanks for your insights on this. The ability to interact in real-time with customers is valuable, but only if I am in need to do so. As an example, trying to interact with me while I am writing this blog post is not very valuable to me, but trying to provide a suggestion knowing that I was actually looking for a new car might work. But then there is the personal space invasion. Google ads on search work, because as a user I ALWAYS have the choice NOT to click on them. But I don’t have that same option on my mobile. The SMS is there, and I have to spent time and energy on it. And truthfully (but that is a personal opinion for what it is worth in mass marketing), if a friend of mine triggers promotional activities on my mobile, I will definitely remove him from my contact list. It all comes down to my believes that my mobile is my remote control to life. Instant messaging does not work as a marketing tool because it invades my life. Browsing is much better as I always have a choice to ignore it.

  5. David Wasser says:


    I totally agree with you. I’ve been working in the LBS industry for almost 10 years now and there has been an awful lot of hype about how people NEED this stuff. Really valuable Location-Based Services are few and very far between. My company just launched what we think is a truly valuable LBS application in Frankfurt Germany: Big Red Zebra is an offline mobile application that uses CellID for location and gives users access to really important information that they need in their daily lives. Things like pharmacy opening times and public transit schedules. The application is an offline application (doesn’t use a connection to a server) so it is blazingly fast and users incur no runtime costs (no data connection or data traffic fees). We believe this is one of the first really useful LBS applications. Check out (available in German and English) and let us know what you think! -DWass

  6. Bessy says:

    I think your comment about location-aware applications ruining the need for calling your friends to know where they are as a bad thing, is so narrow minded. If the only thing you need to know from your friend if where he is, why would you have to waste an SMS or a phone call on that if you could find out directly from his location feed. You still have to ask if you can join him/her there. It’s positive to utilize techonology instead of being afraid of how it will “damage” present habits. If more people thought like you, they would have said, if you can just send an e-mail to update your family with information/pictures, then when would you write a letter and send it through snail mail? And instant messaging might eliminate the need for email, OH no! Doing more in a short time is awesome. Time is money. So naturally, saving time and money with mobile internet will soon spread.

    I also think that the social networks sites eliminate another question that people are used to asking, “what did you do this weekend?” With photo uploading from even mobiles, and friend tagging, you can already tell your friends what’s going on. God forbid people will have to deepen their conversations because of technology… I bet you’re afraid of live video streaming from mobile to mobile because it’ll eliminate “wish you could see this!” from your dialogue.

    Everyone wants different things but definitely convenience is one that is repeated across the board.

  7. Alexander van Elsas says:

    Hi Bessy, thanks for your input. I feel the need to clarify myself after being accused of narrow-minded-ness 😉 .
    I think the location based example (provided by the NY Times to prove the use of lb services) is really a rather weak example for the advantages of LB services. Sure it might be convenient to look at a location tracker of a person and infer that he or she might be late. But I would bet that most people would still prefer to have contact when arrival is delayed, simply because they get more information regarding the current situation (are you in a traffic jam, was there an accident, what time do you think you will arrive etc., etc.). I am not opposed to technological developments. But I am critical towards technical capabilities that do not have a clear user driver behind it to justify the need for it. Location Based services are pretty old as a concept. There haven’t been many successful implementations where users massively started using them. It is a technology forced upon us by the industry that simply hasn’t delivered yet on usefulness.
    I am a firm believer in interaction. People love to interact. So your example of photo uploading eliminating the need for people to ask ‘what did you do last weekend” is very nice, but I bet the question won’t stop after you’ve uploaded. If anything, you would probably get more conversation out of it.
    And finally, in response to your live mobile video streaming. I’m not afraid of it eliminating the “wish you could see this” question. But I have used live video calls on mobile quite a bit and the experience is not nearly interesting enough to be using it too often. The technology is complex, bandwidth too low, screen size, sound, it all adds up to a “nice to try” feature instead of using it all the time. We might get there in the end, but for now the technology limits the usefulness.

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