Should We Just Give Up On Mobile Data and Content?

If you look past Vodafone’s huge paper loss last year, and take a look at their otherwise fairly satisfying results, you’ll see that data, excluding SMS, accounts for less than four percent of its revenues. Also note the semi-regular stories saying people don’t want advanced features on their handsets, and those that have them don’t use them. 3G growth has been somewhat anemic, with 3G users appearing to deliver negligible ARPU boosts. Meanwhile, people keep on talking and texting like crazy, while mobile data lags and content beyond ringtones and Java games crawls along.

So should we all just accept that people aren’t interested in mobile data and content, and just move on?

Of course not. But the industry, and operators in particular, need to heed this stinging indictment of the current system and institute some major changes if mobile data is ever to amount to more than just a small chunk of the overall picture. Here’s what needs to happen:

  • Embrace and encourage innovation. For a start, operators need to realize that they’re not, and never will be, the key innovators in mobile data. Nor should they be. What they should be is empowering other people to innovate for the market, whether it’s by sponsoring third-party developers, giving smart kids and trendsetters access to new devices and services and seeing what they can come up with or supporting user-generated content. These efforts should extend beyond just applications and services, and reach into all aspects of how operators work. Forget thinking you have all the answers; quit throwing money at expensive consultants, just buy some sandwiches and talk to people that are excited about this stuff. Building demand for mobile data is predicated on the availability of cool services and content. Without this, it’s going nowhere.
  • Build the ecosystem. Too many parts of the mobile industry are set up to ensure that one party benefits more than any other. This isn’t just annoying, it’s unsustainable. Everyone has to benefit — operators, device manufacturers developers, content providers and especially users — and needs to be compensated for their role in the value chain. This calls for equitable revenue shares, access to billing and support systems, open devices and networks that give users access to the content they want, support for mobile advertising, and so on.
  • Think platforms, not products. Mobile devices and networks should be platforms, not products. For instance, mobile TV shouldn’t just be a product in itself, it should be a platform that supports other services and applications that build on its base functionality. For examples of this, see FeliCa in Japan — a mobile transaction platform that handles mobile payments, as well as plenty of other applications — or witness how MMS has flourished as a content-delivery platform after failing miserably as a person-to-person communications product.
  • Revamp marketing. The way mobile data services and content are presented to people is totally flawed. So much of it is (and always has been) based on the idea of “what is it?”: WAP is the web on your mobile. MMS is like SMS, but with a picture. 3G is fast data. The average consumer’s reaction to that: “So what?” Stop trying to sell people on what something is, and focus on what it can do — that is, of course, if the marketers have any idea. So what if HSDPA makes data fast? What can I do with that fast data? Technology doesn’t sell devices and mobile connectivity — services, applications and content do.

What else needs to change to get people more interested in mobile data? I realize this is basically the same question we’ve been asking since, oh, 2000 or so, but at some point, people will start listening. This isn’t intended to set off an operator-bashing festival, because they’re not the only ones that need to evolve here, and any use of the term “killer app” will get you slapped with a decent-sized fish. But let’s spell it out here — what else has to change, where am I wrong, and who’s already doing it?

[tags]mobile, mobile data, mobile content, mms, wap, 3g, hsdpa, sms[/tags]

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