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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Mobile Web 2.0 - thoughts + book review. The emperor has a few clothes

A couple of things have recently made me consider the issues around porting Web 2.0 (social networking, user-generated content, AJAX & all that good stuff...) to the mobile domain.

Firstly, Ajit Jaokar from Open Garden and Forum Oxford sent me a copy of his book on the subject (co-written with Tony Fish). (some more specific comments are below).

Secondly, there has been an awful lot of noise from handset vendors, software firms, operators and others about things like user-generated content. The Symbian smartphone show, for example, was saturated in this.

I'm in two minds about all this, to be honest. I'm nowhere near as enthusiastic about Web 2.0 (fixed or mobile) as some of the louder evangelists. Yes, it's important, but no, I'm not convinced it's going to completely change the world. I actually think that it's a symptom of the Internet turning into a more usable but over-featured platform.

In some ways (warning, heretical comment ahead) Web 2.0 is like Windows or Microsoft Office on a PC - or even a PBX in an enterprise. There are hundreds of features & subsidiary applications, but you only ever use a dozen regularly, and some more occasionally. Sometimes you'll have an "a-ha!" moment where you find something new & useful, or you see a colleague doing something interesting. But everyone's got their own subset of preferred features.

The same will be true of Web 2.0 generally, and mobile Web 2.0 in particular. In the mobile domain, this will mean that some people will use some features some times. This will limit the spread of community, and will certainly mean that the mobile device will not become the central hub of most people's online lives.

So, for example, I write this blog on my desktop PC, or occasionally a laptop if I'm at a conference. But I would never use a mobile phone, as nothing I post here is that time critical that it can't wait until I'm in front of a proper keyboard & mouse, so I can add links, edit & re-paragraph and so on. Another thing - I can't see the point in tagging, and I don't have the inclination to find out. So, I'm picking and choosing which bits of the Web 2.0 universe that meet my immediate personal goals. The rest of it.... well..... life's too short.

Similarly, I'll take photos on my phone, but I can't see myself uploading them direct to any sort of Web 2.0 site. I'll wait, and transfer the uncompressed image files to my PC, where I can use them in multiple ways - upload, email, archive, print. Occasionally I'll send an MMS, but if I'm honest that's usually because I'm in the pub & taking silly photos.

So for me, the phone is about "capture" of data (eg pictures, maybe with some location context), plus time-sensitive applications like checking my business email when I'm out. I'll occasionally read blogs & web forum stuff on my mobile device, but I can't be bothered to "generate content". I could possibly envisage using IM on a phone, as long as I don't have to pay for it, and if it interoperates perfectly with Yahoo. I'm not an avid MySpace user (under-used profile I keep meaning to work on), nor Flickr, and I watch YouTube but don't contribute.

For other people, their priorities and preferences will vary. But nobody will use everything that Web 2.0 has to offer.

And for Mobile Web 2.0, there are other practical considerations which will mean it will be even more fragmentary. Everyone's handset has different software & capabilities. Coverage varies considerably - especially indoors, where 3G is mostly used, and where users will often tend to generate or view content. Data tariffs vary. Different operators will have different service preferences & partnerships. National differences are huge. Handsets' short life cycles will mean groups of friends have imbalanced capabilities between their phones. People will have capabilities split across multiple devices & operators. Frankly, although certain "islands" of mobile web 2.0 will exist, possibly at a nationwide-level, I just cannot see any applications gaining the same amount of viral-induced global acceptance we see on the PC-based web. For example, Keith at Telebusillis comments on high usage of MySpace among Helio subscribers - but I just cannot ever see more than a few % of the total global MySpace population - or whatever is temporarily cool in Oct 2009 - using it on their handsets.

Bottom line - Mobile Web 2.0 seems over-hyped before it's even been properly introduced, particularly around the notion of a world dominated by "user-generated content". On the other hand, the idea of "perpetual beta" makes a lot more sense in a mobile industry that has historically taken years to get substandard things to market. There will also be a few areas where "collective intelligence" (eg voting) is important - but they won't change the world.

OK, with that out of the way, more on Ajit's book. It's got some great stuff in it, and is a comprehensive treatment of a complex subject from the user's point of view. It introduces a lot of the key themes, albeit (unsurprisingly) with more of a tub-thumping utopian view than the one I espoused above. I like the ideas of things being more browser-driven, and as I said I like the "perpetual beta" concept applied to mobility.

For someone like me, who hasn't really "studied" PC-based Web 2.0, it's great to go through all the underlying principles, and pick out the ones you (a) agree with, and (b) use or exploit personally. That said, just reading about "social bookmarking" or "tagging" still doesn't make we want to spend time doing it, especially on a mobile device.

However, I think the book assumes a bit too much of the technology, and ignores some of the less-convenient factors around conventional mobile (and Internet) usage. It doesn't take account of the fact that on-device capabilities (memory, camera, processor) grow at a faster pace than connectivity, which will tend to prioritise offline over online applications. (This is a separate post I need to do at some point). It doesn't mention coverage issues, nor how prepay users can fit into this new world (absolutely critical in many markets). It's a bit too convergence-oriented, and doesn't take account of multiplicity - multiple devices, multiple numbers, multiple IDs etc. However, it has a lot of useful case studies & pointers to the "target applications" which may become more possible over time.

Overall, the book is a good starting point, and you can use it to generate your own divergent trains of thought. It catalysed my thought process on how mobile mashups could work in reality, for example - if you start with 2 GB of initial mapping data on a memory card, and just "top up" over the network where necessary, and add additional variables generated both locally and through the network.

Bottom line on the book: Read it as a backgrounder, and as a starting point for what what might occur, if awkward realities didn't get in the way. Don't buy into the hype around Web 2.0 being the panacea for mobile communications for everyone, but pick & choose which bits you believe are feasible. Then look for niches where the problems don't matter, or invent solutions to fix the issues raised.


Anonymous said...


you are showing your age here :-)

Anyway, as you said, it does depend on the target audience and the specific 'Web 2.0'/UCC application. In Korea, more than 90% of all 14-29 year olds are on Cyworld, the vast majority also use it on their mobile handsets. For MySpace Mobile, the usage at Helio IS astounding considering that it is such a new offering. Both the Cyworld and MySpace Mobile examples demonstrate that the take rate is likely to be higher than a couple of percentage points though. Also, consider this; would Softbank have done a deal with MySpace to bring MySpace Mobile to Japan if just a few people were going to use it? Web 2.0 is going mobile, whether it is YouTube Mobile, Helio's content gifting and begging services or mobile RSS services such as Helio on Top. Carriers not focusing on soccer mums and the enterprise market are and will continue to bring services to market that have evolved from PC-based Web 2.0 services to incorporate the opportunities and challenges of a mobile terminal.


Anonymous said...

Didn't read Ajit's book but Mobile Web 2.0 is not about accessing internet using phone to browse or generate content. It is about instant, always ON connectivity that can be personalized.

How about this that is never possible on your PC? Geographic presence enabled social networking where people discover their business contacts who are in the vicinity and try to get a drink and do some business deals?