There is a great deal of speculation currently that 2008 with be the year mobile finally comes of age. Much of this discussion is as a result of the increasing interest in mobile advertising and 3’s announcement that Skype will be available over their network. Given all the hype I thought it time I got off the fence and made my own prediction.
What are the factors that will drive adoption?” Certainly, advertising money tends to follow audiences and I agree that evolution of user behaviour will be a primary factor in the adoption of mobile for internet access. But user behaviour is driven by a number of drivers and we can end up in a bit of a chicken vs. egg dilemma. The economics of the way mobile internet is purchased drive behaviour in the same way they do in interactive TV, but also technology limitations through the vast plethora of mobile devices removes behavioural consistency. The way mobile applications are developed is also fundamentally different to the way websites are developed and this also has a big impact on adoption. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
The economics of mobile operate in a fundamentally different way to internet. Mobile operators act as both the provider of the access pipe and also of the content in a way that Internet ISP’s do not. This walled garden effect means that although the operators gain a large share of the market, the total available is rather small. Further, as I mentioned above, like iDTV, there is enormous uncertainty about tariffs for data downloads. We have conducted a variety of iDTV and mobile research and the same situations come up time and again. Users simply don’t know what the cost of pressing the “Red” button is and they are equally uncertain about the cost of going online on their mobile. We can now get fixed price, or even free, Internet access and as the large players connect with each other (like Sky who now own iDTV, Internet and Mobile businesses) we should find mobile internet access increasingly being bundled in. Until this happens with mobile access take up will be limited.
Technology development has been considered a barrier to adoption. For some time conventional wisdom said that nobody will watch TV on a tiny mobile screen. Well as the picture below shows, in Asia this myth has already been proved wrong and frequently commuters can be seen waiting on the platform, watching TV on a 2” screen.
So if screen size isn’t the problem what is? In many ways it is the problem that Microsoft fixed in desktop computing. By creating MS Windows and achieving massive adoption the majority of low tech had a singular view on how they should interface with their technology. If you own three different mobile phones you can experience three entirely different operating systems and the situation is worsened because the mobile operators are providing not only the operating system but also a good deal of the applications. Open standards and adoption of conventions would put fewer burdens on the user and open up a greater degree of functionality and content.
The launch of Apple’s iphone is a step change in the way mobile technology is interfaced with by a user. The development was run with the user in mind and real investment went in to developing a new paradigm for user interaction. The same cannot be said for the way mobile internet applications are developed. A good deal of these are developed with little or no user exposure in the development process and as a result exhibit very poor usability. The economics of development don’t allow for user involvement either. I met a company recently that produces a number of mobile sites. Their core business is not development but it has become an essential add-on to their business. Every site is developed in central Europe and the cost is less than £20k. Most web developments spend multiples more than this on user research alone.
So can user behaviour force the change? I recently became the proud owner of a Blackberry – the first time I have owned one. It has mobile internet on a screen that is suitable even for someone with a few grey hairs like me. I use a web based conference call booking system and was on the train recently when I had to move the conference call. I visited the website via my Blackberry, logged in to the site but could not change the time. The functionality that worked through my PC’s web browser would not work on mobile.
For sure it was getting a new device that changed my behaviour. It made me try something new to see if it would work. It helped that my company was paying the bill and it was work activity as I had no realisation of the cost. The interface rendered relatively well on my mobile device and actually the user experience – up to the point when I could go no further – was very similar to that on my PC. But the site wasn’t ready for me and clearly had not been designed with mobile in mind. Until all these aspects come together it is hard to see mobile internet adoption sky rocketing.
So I think 2008 will be a significant year but not the year for mobile. According to Bill Gates “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” I think this will prove true of mobile internet use and in many ways already has. The UK’s 3G licence auction was in 2000 and values were driven up by anticipated change in the way technology would be used. Of course we all know that the networks made huge write downs on their balance sheets as the actual value of the network assets they had acquired became understood. Using Gates prediction 2010 will be the year mobile really takes off but I am prepared to give or take a year across a decade and look to 2009 for major adoption to occur.