Generation Mobile

27 Mar 2008

We are the connected generation, the information generation, and the mobile handset is both our lifeline and our badge of honour.

Without our mobiles we feel loss, that something’s missing; our connection to the people we love, the world we live and work in and our means of staying informed and entertained.

Our mobiles are an expression of self. At once they are a fashion item, an expression of status and wealth and power.

Very soon there will be more mobile devices in the world than people. Entire industries will feed this device, from finance and banking to art, media and entertainment.

The mobile generation is right here, right now. Are you ready?

One word sums up the changes set to take place for the mobile phone over the next few years: convergence.

The handset is now as much a web browser, MP3 player, computing device or digital camera as it is a phone.

“I see the uncoupling of the user and the PC. Mobile computing is advancing at breakneck speed and I think we will see full transition to mobile devices as our primary computing device before these five years are up,” says Pat Phelan, CEO of Cubic Telecoms.

“Nokia released a 16GB handset in September, the iPhone now has a 32GB version and these large storage devices plus high network speeds now eliminate my need to revert to a PC during the day.”

Colm Torris, mobility business group leader for Microsoft Ireland, explains that we are witnessing a rapid evolution in the mobile handset from phone and text to intelligent device.

“Of course people will still want speciality devices, photography is a great example. I’m not throwing away my camera, but the new phones provide camera functionality on the move giving you more flexibility in informal situations.”

However, for other applications Torris sees the phone as becoming the standard device: “For example if you have GPS (global positioning system) capabilities on your phone, why purchase a separate device?”

But the mobile web is where we will see the strength of the handset this year. New player Apple is making the internet more accessible, while traditional stalwarts like Vodafone are offering data packages that make the cost of mobile browsing seem less daunting.

While the concept of the mobile web, or WAP (wireless application protocol), has been around for several years the cost has always been near-criminal, the speeds slow and the interface unsuitable for any sort of proper browsing.

“Up until now it has been prohibitively expensive for mobile users to explore the web on their handsets,” observes John O’Shea, CEO of mobile content firm Zamano.

“However, new technologies which optimise the web for mobile, together with cheaper data costs, have made the use of the web on the mobile more accessible.

“Unfortunately, this trend is more concentrated outside Ireland, as some of the Irish operators still maintain high data charges, making mobile users fearful of bill shocks associated with downloading and browsing.”

As the handset evolves, the landscape of the mobile industry is also changing. This is also driven by convergence, with the line between the mobile ecosystem and the web ecosystem steadily blurring.

“What we’re seeing is a convergence of the industry,” says Chris Handley, head of mobile internet and content for Vodafone Ireland.

“We are seeing a whole new class of competitor from a number of levels: software players like Microsoft who are more intent on getting into mobile, the internet players like Google and Yahoo!, manufacturers like Apple and Nokia and, of course, operators like ourselves who are working to secure our place in the value chain so to speak.

“All of this is working together to change the market in a way we haven’t seen before and in the next six months I think we are going to see more changes than we did in the previous 24.”

Of all these players, the iPhone is the one that has changed the nature of the game and not because everyone is using it, says Shane McAllister, CEO of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi marketing firm, Mobanode.

“It alone, more than any other phone, has sparked thousands of ‘the future of mobile’ debates.

“It changed the game by pairing your phone with your computer, creating the mindset of a phone as an upgradeable, feature-rich device. Heretofore, you bought a phone, kept it for a year or two and then upgraded to the latest model.”

Handley says the iPhone has had a tremendous impact on user awareness.

“After the iPhone was released, people began to think about using mobile phones in general and not just the iPhone as a legitimate web browser. There are so many handsets out there that do this already.”

However, O’Shea thinks the iPhone’s influence will be limited by its costs but does acknowledge it is highlighting the power of the mobile again and bringing its web browsing capability to people’s’ attention.

“Its ease of use is also influencing other mobile phone providers, who are in turn producing better handsets.”

While the internet has always been associated with flattening the globe, the powerful punch of the web and the mobile combined will accelerate this in the future.

“Worldwide, it took around 20 years to get to one billion phones, four years to get to two billion and around two years to get to three billion,” observes John Herlihy, vice-president for online sales and operations, Google.

“What you’re seeing is incredible acceleration of adoption. Anytime I travel, I can hear and see people using mobile devices across all geographies, languages and cultures – at any airport.

“Indeed, users in countries with traditionally poor telecoms infrastructure, such as many in sub-Saharan Africa, are jumping straight to mobile. It is a convenient and simple way, for example, to access email and internet ‘on the go’.

“To date, Google is very pleased with its provision of search and other products such as Maps and Gmail on mobile devices.”

As regards what will drive future trends in mobile, Herlihy says it remains to be seen how big an impact user-generated content such as uploading photos, blogging etc will have. But what is certain is the mobile handset’s future as a web platform will be driven by consumer demand for continued innovation and 24/7 access to information.

Industry experts and technologists alike tell us the mobile is becoming increasingly like the PC or laptop and that soon we will have the same functionality and computing power in our hands as we have on our desks.

Yet customisation of most handsets goes only as far as changing ringtones or wallpaper and the installation of software is severely limited and locked into the handset manufacturer, something which would not be tolerated on a desktop or laptop.

This is slowly changing with the release of software developer kits (SDKs) by both Apple and Google.

These kits enable third parties to create useful applications for consumers that have the potential to act as a powerful means of revenue in a market where voice- and text-related profits are beginning to dwindle.

While Apple’s SDK is specifically for creating applications for the iPhone alone, Google has released one for Android, a project developed for the Open Handset Alliance. This group counts LG, Samsung, T-Mobile, Motorola and Intel as members.

“Android will certainly impact the industry and lead to innovative applications, but its effect on the consumer will be harder to gauge,” says McAllister.

“Most people stick with what they are given – hence Windows proliferates in the desktop world despite more robust and user-friendly alternatives like Linux or Mac OS X.”

Android, however, was not among the hotly tipped mobile trends at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this past February, one of the biggest mobile industry events of the year.

Phelan, who was in attendance, says several new technologies for the mobile were labelled as ‘ones to watch’, including a voicemail-to-text service from SpinVox, mobile streaming video from Qik, and mobile social networking from Yahoo!.

Mobile social networking, a concept that barely existed a year ago is now becoming hugely popular, especially among younger users. Sites like MySpace and Bebo have started to work with mobile operators, while new social networking sites such as are being developed especially for the mobile.

Travis Katz, managing director of MySpace, has already predicted half of all site traffic will be coming from the mobile phone within the next five years.

“This is a trend we’re seeing whereby all major community and social networking services have plans to or are already delivering mobile services,” says Colm Codd, head of new business, O2 Ireland.

“Bebo has been extremely well received on O2’s mobile internet service. Mobile brings a new immediacy to these services. Comments, messages and pictures can all be created and viewed whenever and wherever the customer wants.”

Rachel Channing, head of PR and communications for 3, says the mobile operator is seeing a dramatic shift towards social networking services in the under-35 age group.

“The mobile generation love social networking and the mobile phone is the communication medium of choice for the young – with more mobile phones than people in Ireland, it’s inevitable social networking via mobile phones challenges the PC for top spot.”

Just like the traditional web, the future of mobile revenue can be charted along with the adoption of services like Bebo or Google by the consumer because advertising will replace the traditional revenue stream.

“We’ve certainly made mobile ads available,” says Google’s Herlihy.

“As a search engine we earn revenue from advertising but for content owners there seems to be different models emerging for the mobile, many of which are a hybrid of advertising and subscription-based models for some or all access to content.”

There is a massive opportunity for innovative technology brands to leapfrog the more traditional PC-based services straight into the hands of the consumer via the mobile phone, says Channing.

“3 is already working with the world’s most innovative tech brands like Google and Yahoo! to complement its existing mobile services and develop even more exciting and new mobile applications,” she adds.

While trends are always difficult to predict, it can be said that over the next five years the mobile phone will become an increasingly centralised part of the 21st-century connected lifestyle.

“Humans are social animals, we love to talk, interact and communicate, and anything that facilitates that will succeed: it is the social tool of choice,” says McAllister.

“The mobile started off as a business tool, but now with a mobile penetration in Ireland of 114pc, it is ubiquitous and essential.

“The personal nature of the device, coupled with its portability and small size, means it has impacted people’s’ lives more than any other previous technology.”

By Marie Boran