Monday, May 26, 2008

mobile 2.0

It does seem rather cool, given the amount of potential it has; and is perhaps the next logical step in evolution of social and information technology. But logic does not always rule supreme. A peek under the covers shows how different innovation on the mobile will be from what has been a given on the computer.

I was at the Mobile Monday meet some weeks back and it was quite an eye-opener in this hitherto unfamiliar area.

The mobile technology space is the anti-thesis of computer technology. It is a closed world of coteries of large and powerful companies.

Take the network carriers - they control content and distribution. Typical of large companies, they are short-sighted. If a third-party wants to make a service available for free, the carrier worries about losing revenue and lowering ARPUs (which is really the prime measure of their performance), and it has full control on how much it charges you or the user for using that service. Imagine having to PAY Comcast or BSNL or Airtel Broadband to use Facebook or Google Search or Wikipedia! Many startups in the mobile industry are just backend providers for services branded or pushed through exclusivity deals by the carriers. If you look at Airtel Live and look at some of the services there in detail, you will see what I mean. Even something as simple as getting a 5-digit number for interacting with your users means working with the carrier, all the carriers. It is like working with your ISP (and all the ISPs) to get a domain name, and the same domain on all of them!

One of the talks that day at MoMo was titled "Driving innovation for future mobile services". Not surprisingly, it was by a director at one of the largest carriers in the world (SingTel). He gave some case studies of how he and his team had helped startups come up with really useful services - next bus timings through SMS, etc. One of the things, though, that came up in the questions was how most of it was possible only because SingTel was pushing the ideas to the users and the carriers they owned (or had a stake in) etc. It is good to see the carriers trying to "drive innovation" but really, can the centralized model work for innovation? It didn't come across as if they were trying to enable innovation, but trying to get as large a pie of it as they could.

Handset makers play the other important role in this space. I haven't had much of a look-see there, so I desist from commenting. However, an anecdote - a friend asked me if I knew of any application on the mobile that was successful, and only one came to mind: SMS.

Innovation in the mobile space will have to be disruptive. Existing business models will have to be broken to shift focus from hegemonic corporations to users. That is the only way for it to grow as fast as the web as grown. What remains to be seen is who first plays the game to change the game.

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