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?