Mobile internet – when will it take off?

By November 28, 2007Facebook, Mobile, Open Source

I have blogged a couple of times on the one internet versus two question, and it seems the debate is still raging – Alan Patrick wrote a great post on the subject last Sunday over on Broadstuff.

There are a couple of things I want to pull out from that post.  Firstly his concise statement of the one web or two arguments deserves repeating:

there are currently 2 main schools of thought – (i) define a unique “mobile web” [aka the two web argument], and (ii) make devices better at coping with existing web content [aka the one web argument]. The problem with the mobile web option is the expenditure given the low pull through (plus the soiled reputation of WAP, the first attempt at this). The problem with the One Web option is the ergonomics of a small screen and limited key functions.

Like Alan, my sympathies are with the one web crew.

The second passage I want to pull out gives the reasons why the mobile internet has never really taken off:

(i) There is limited collaboration across the value chain (content standards, distribution standards on Mobile TV, handset standards etc) which makes the “friction” in the supply chain high compared to alternative (IP based) plays.

(ii) This means that the user audience finds mobile multimedia hard to use, they tend to try it out and then (apart from a small subset) by and large give up on it.

(iii) In addition, the economics of “pay as you go” drives people to minimise service / content usage – and there is still a lot of fear of “sticker shock” from big data transfer charges for content usage. [The emerging all-you-can-eat data packages are not making much of an impact yet.]

(iv) This small audience means that the economics of new content and service creation are less enticing than they should be. Exacerbating this is the small share of these small revenues that the upstream players typically get in most schemes.

The good news is that I am starting to feel in my water that things are not too far off changing – i.e. that the long awaited breakthrough on mobile might not be too far away.  To be fair, I’ve felt this before, and it hasn’t happened, but hopefully I’m a bit older and wiser now.  It’s got to happen sometime after all.

That said, I ran into Fred Destin on the street about an hour ago and he was a bit more pessimistic.  I mention that because he is a guy who knows a thing or two about this space.

The reasons to be optimistic are the number of services that are starting to get traction.  As well as the whole ring tones and games story that has been running for a while there is good news starting to come out of more internet-like services.  For example I have heard positive things about Flirtomatic, Mobango and Zed in the last week, and I am also encouraged by things like Facebook’s mobile app, Google maps on the mobile, Google Android, the progress of mobile linux and even the iPhone (although I don’t think this is revolutionary).

A lack of standards has clearly held back the mobile internet – and common standards are an essential pre-cursor to things really taking off.  That is the lesson of DoCoMo.

As I see it, we could get common standards in one of three ways:

  1. Everybody agrees at the W3C
  2. A single company is able to dictate standards
  3. A service takes off and standards coalesce around it

The mobile value chain is such that I don’t think 1 or 2 will come to pass any time soon (not even with the arrival of Apple on the scene).  Which leaves me with 3 – and even that may be fanciful to hope for given the huge number of obstacles in the way of building a compelling mobile service.

But for now at least my antenna are up.  For the reasons cited above we may not be too far from a tipping point in this market.