Thursday, November 29, 2007

The year of the mobile?

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Every second of every day, according to the CIA world factbook, 2.4 babies are born. It’s a busy old world, you might conclude, and you might leave it at that.

For numbers like this to mean anything, they’ve got to be given context. We need a benchmark – something to give us a sense of whether this number is large or small. So here’s one.

Every second of every day (in the third quarter of this year) 23 mobile phones were sold.
Now aside from the obvious conclusion that every baby has around ten mobile phones, that’s a big number. In fact just shy of a quarter of a billion handsets were sold in Q3 by the top 5 manufacturers.

Every year we look at the rate of growth and the increasing smartness of devices and believe the coming year will be the ‘year of mobile marketing’ (confession: I’ve been guilty of this too).
So will 2008 finally be that year?

To reach the tipping point, there are three factors needed to drive audiences online. Flat rate data access, smart devices and worthwhile content.

2007 saw mobile operators move towards charging a flat rate for internet access – a model that’s expected to lead to a surge in usage. The year also saw the emergence of much improved devices –Nokia’s N95, which offered 3G speed web access (when the battery hadn’t run out) and Apple’s iPhone, which wowed reviewers with what many saw as the first really usable mobile web device.

Driven by these developments, the number of UK mobile internet users has risen 30% in the last year, to 16m in October. Google tops the list of sites visited in the UK, followed by Orange and the BBC.

But the numbers remain tiny in comparison to fixed web consumption, and media usage on the mobile internet remains a niche activity.

But whilst the consumption of media content has remained limited, what has emerged over the past year feels very much like the early years of the internet, as more and more applications are launched.
This year has seen Westminster City Council convert many of its parking bays to payment by mobile phone (saving all that insecure cash collection), Transport for London’s Cabwise scheme lets you text a short code and get the phone numbers of two cab firms local to where you’re texting from.

You can microblog through Twitter, flirt through flirtomatic, instant message with people, Check prices when standing in a shop, download a map showing where you are. There are even SMS-enabled rat traps.

Nokia have just launched a test using a phone with built-in oyster card to pay for tube and bus journeys, and with a stored-value card to make small payments.

Using a mobile phone to make payments is already commonplace in Japan, where phones are also used to scan barcodes (QR codes) in newspapers – providing a return path for print advertising and a common means of distributing coupons.

So what is the significance of all these apparently unconnected things?

The emergence of mobile as an internet device isn’t going to be driven by media content. As with the internet, there was no ‘killer application’ – rather the gradual accretion of thousands of useful things; email, banking, dating, share trading, news, shopping, online TV, search. As these services gathered, individual users reached their own tipping points – they weren’t driven online by one service, but often by the addition of one application to the existing weight of services.

So 2008 isn’t going to be the ‘year of mobile’. There isn’t going to be a moment when we wake up and everything’s mobile. Instead, the coming year will see the accumulation of more and more services and applications offered through mobiles.

So mobile success over the coming year isn’t going to come from advertising – it’s going to come to brands that bring value to consumers by providing stuff they’ll use.

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