A couple of talks at Mobile World Congress may be signs of important future trends in mobile and online. First AT&T CEO Stephenson said the difficulties in moving content between devices was hampering mobile content opportunity. He also commented that AT&T believed that apps should run across devices, not be linked to a single gadget. While at least the second of these could be a sour-grapes reaction to Apple’s App Store concept, no longer an AT&T private lake, it seems likely that Stephenson is onto something regarding content portability.
Then Google’s outgoing CEO Eric Schmidt’s often-disconnected talk showcased something important — online mobile services are reshaping our lives in ways nobody predicted. If you put these two talks together, you get a picture of an industry that’s grappling with a combination of enormous opportunity and influence, and enormous structural change.
We can find out what friends are doing almost in real time, so at least for a time we do. We can grab video clips to laugh over, check the weather, and so forth. But all of this is like a new TV show in a way. The first couple of episodes are fresh and exciting, then the writers just run out of ideas. Stephenson is worried that a focus on mobile social indulgence is going to cover up the need to establish something real and useful at the core of the mobile revolution, particularly in content.
My research has long shown that the majority of online content consumption takes place when and where traditional content can’t be consumed, meaning that it tends to be incremental to rather than to replace the old forms. It also suggests (though this is a hard point to survey or model) that a decent piece of the consumption is either linked to youth behavior that passes with age, or to novelty. But there’s no question that a smart multi-screen strategy would go a long way to creating a truly useful and enduring model because people often have to skip out on something, move during a showing, etc.
Stephenson made an app reference later in his talk, and if you think about it, there’s a linkage here. Apps that are truly compelling need to be fully pervasive. We know that the reduction in price of consumer electronics is going to breed a multiplication of devices, and so we need to ask whether we can become dependent on future apps without having those apps available to us when we think we need them. What Schmidt is suggesting is that mobility and online services will change our behavior, and that’s most likely to be true when we can learn to depend on the combination. Every time we don’t have access, every time we have to stop and start, every annoying glitch, makes dependency harder to establish.
In many ways, what both Stephenson and Schmidt are suggesting is that we need more network-centric services for mobility, which is ironic given that for voice service, that’s what we’ve had from the first. The broadband revolution in the mobile world bypassed the network operators almost totally. They jumped on smartphones to pull through higher ARPU and let the appliance vendors and their stores add non-voice (and now even voice) features. That could have been a fatal step, and still could be.
Handset players, especially those like RIM and now Microsoft/Nokia, seem to be courting operators to dodge the problems of feature disconnect by partnering with them. That, of course, only limits the number of people stealing from you in the perception of the operator. Somehow they’ve got to be a part of the picture, and they’ve been so far unable to wrestle the initiative from the handset players.