Services, services, services. Lots of handset vendors and operators have been talking about services, and how they’re key to the future. I’ve had a hard time buying into the talk too much, given the long and storied track record of big-name companies in the mobile industry rolling out dreadful applications and services. It’s hard to see this new generation of services having much success, either, unless some things really change.
I’m going to pick on Nokia a bit, if only because they’ve probably talked the loudest about becoming a services company and have launched several, well, useful examples. But they illustrate the biggest problem facing vendors and operators trying to launch services — yet again, they’re trying to pull users into walled, closed services, rather than going to where the users are, and enabling services for mobile.
For instance, check out Nokia’s recently launched Sync on Ovi. In short, it lets users of certain Nokia devices sync up their calendars and contacts to Ovi.com. That’s great — sort of. Anything that backs up users’ contacts so they’re saved in case of some problem, or for easy transfer to a new device, I’m all for that. But the problem is the only way to get contacts and calendar entries into the service is to enter them on the device or on the Ovi.com site. And the Ovi calendar and contacts app don’t hold a candle to the online services like Google Calendar that people are already using. So if you are an active Google Calendar user that wants to sync your calendar to your phone, you’re on your own. Unless you want to switch over to using the Ovi calendar app on the web. Somehow, I don’t see too many people doing that.
We’ve seen lots of attempts at social-networking services and IM apps that have fallen flat on their face because they’ve either been closed off in a stupid way (such as being limited to users of a particular operator or handset brand), or because they’ve been absolute crap. Since I’m picking on Nokia… check out Nokia Chat and the Nokia Email service beta. The former does some neat stuff — as long as you’ve got lots of friends with compatible S60 devices. The latter, at least for me, simply didn’t work at all.
So one isn’t much use, unless you’ve already got lots of friends with Nokia smartphones. The other (at least in my case) had a horrible user experience, and generated, if anything, some ill will towards the Nokia brand. Good outcome. I appreciate the Nokia Email beta a little bit, because it’s trying to improve the rather poor email app on my E71, and it’s an attempt to make my Gmail account more useful and better on my mobile device. But it didn’t work. Nokia Chat I can appreciate because it’s cool new tech — but unless it’s going to support those cool features on a wide range of devices, including non-Nokia ones, it’s pretty pointless for me.
So one service sucks, the other is so closed off it’s useless. That’s the recipe for failure.
Let’s jump back to the sync service. It would be great if it helped users get their existing calendar data onto their devices. Importing their Gcal info, or Ical feeds, or from Outlook. But instead, that option doesn’t exist. Use the Nokia service on the web, or find another solution. So what will most people end up doing?
Compare this to third-party solutions like, say, Zyb. It syncs and backs up contacts, much like the Ovi Sync service. But it lets users pull in contacts from a wide range of other apps and services. Or check out ShoZu for media sharing. It offers a great app for uploading media from phones, but it doesn’t try to force users to upload and share their media to some closed-off community. It supports a huge list of communities. It goes where the users are, it enables a better mobile experience for users with the services they’re already invested in. Trying to drive them from Flickr and YouTube and Moblog and Blogger to some substandard sharing service wouldn’t work. But ShoZu builds its brand by bringing a better experience to mobile users of those big communities. (Yes, I know that Nokia’s Share on Ovi supports uploading to Flickr and Vox… but it’s not added support beyond those two sites for quite some time now.)
So, to sum up, if you’re an operator or a handset vendor, don’t try to sell your users on some new social-networking site. Make it easier and better for them to access Facebook, or MySpace, or whatever social site they’re already invested in. Don’t try to sell them on some new IM service that’s closed off to most of their friends; make Skype or AIM or MSN work better on their handset.
By enabling better experiences with the services your customers already use, you’ll create a much more favorable impression of your brand than if you try and force them into closed and substandard services of your own.