While analysts argue over which search engine portal or social networking site will win the future internet audience, the real money is on not how, but where, this audience will get connected. The money is on mobile.
“I think being tethered to the desktop or laptop is just a transition we are going through,” says Conor O’Neill, CEO of technology consultancy firm Argolon and editor of Web2Ireland.org.
“In the future, it is going to be about your phone or what your phone will become.”
Right now the internet experience mostly lives on the desktop but Apple is posing serious competition to the traditional web model with the advent of the iPhone.
Over one million of the updated, next-generation, 3G versions of the handset were sold in its first weekend of release alone. That’s one million people who have now changed the way they access the web forever, but why?
“It’s about having a touchscreen and having ultra-responsivity. When you see the touch interaction working on an iPhone you realise it is a generation ahead of all these other devices.”
But internet powerhouse Google, with revenue of US$16.5bn in 2007 and roughly 68pc of the search engine market share, is also keeping its eye on the ball.
The search-advertising giant has YouTube and Google Maps on the iPhone, not to mention the fact that the Google search engine is the Apple device’s default web browser.
“Mobile is incredibly important,” says John Herlihy, director of European online sales and operations at Google.
“It is a big part of providing ubiquitous access. Many emerging markets jump straight to the mobile platform for web access.”
“I certainly believe that access channels to the web are changing and devices are coming on stream that make this enjoyable and practical, even at the hand-held level,” says Fergal O’Byrne, chief executive of the Irish Internet Association.
However, despite the coming of the iPhone, he adds: “I am still waiting for the foldable e-Paper that I can roll up and put in my jacket pocket.”
This view of the mobile as an equally important device for access to the web, rather than the desktop killer, has sensible foundations: “Personally, I still prefer to access content via my laptop rather than a smaller handheld screen,” says Herlihy.
This is because many in the technology industry do not see the iPhone as the killer app for the web, but rather as a gateway that makes it possible for a new framework through which we will access our online information in the future.
Of course, there is no denying the iPhone is a game-changing device – not just in and of itself but because of the knock-on effect it is having for the entire mobile web, says O’Neill.
“It is the idea of the iPhone being a catalyst. It is forcing companies to build better mobile versions of their sites so it’s win-win for everyone, not just Apple, because then all handsets will better display these mobile-optimised sites.”
One emerging powerhouse that had wised up to the mobile platform is social networking site Facebook.
With over 70 million users worldwide, Facebook is one of the most visited sites on the internet and was one of the first movers to create a BlackBerry version of its site, the latest of which allows users to chat through Facebook’s instant messaging service. It has also created an iPhone-optimised site.
But while Facebook is busy adapting to its audience’s preference for mobile access, it is equally industrious in its attempts to hold on to the crowd with a closed-in site which aims to provide everything so the user need never leave.
“This (silo approach) is a strategic decision by the likes of Facebook that may well backfire on them,” says O’Byrne.
“Internet users are used to being hyper-connected and able to share data across many platforms. Facebook is hugely popular and with this comes challenges.
As well as being free to roam physically, the user needs to be free to roam virtually: “I believe users will want to be unconstrained and totally free to share and cross-pollinate data and information across myriad platforms.”
O’Byrne thinks “ring-fencing” users is not a great way to build loyalty, especially when the next Facebook is “only a venture capitalist’s chequebook from global domination”.
He says one of the reasons why Google is so successful as a search engine is not just its adaptation to mobile but because there are no constraints in using it – you can easily switch to MSN or Yahoo! if you wish: “Would the Google search engine be as popular if it locked you in when using it?”
Paul Nerger, vice-president of advanced services and applications at the Dublin-based dotMobi which sells mobile domains for the web, says the iPhone has raised the profile of the rich-web experience.
“One of things we went through as an industry is where some people look at the mobile as a disabled PC and this is not the case. In many ways, it is superior: unlike a PC it is mobile, instant-on, more personal, always at hand, we don’t have to share it. It is more personal than the personal computer.”
The advantage of the mobile web is doing what the phone does best, says Nerger. He gives examples of sites that let the user check in to their flight via mobile phone and instantly receive an MMS (multimedia text) that can be used as a boarding pass.
The increasing success of the mobile platform cannot be denied: at the end of November 2007, dotMobi saw 26,000 made-for-mobile sites out there based on its crawl of the internet. Seven months later, this number had risen to 178,000 – an eight-fold increase.
But the biggest question raised by the success of the iPhone is, what next? Is there a desktop killer?
“The mobile phone, plus location awareness, is going to be the source of the killer application. I don’t think it will necessarily be on the iPhone but it will be on an iPhone-like device,” says O’Neill.
When the iPhone 3G went on sale Apple also opened the doors to the App Store, unleashing a plethora of applications, but the most innovative of these had location awareness built in.
Twitterific, an iPhone application for micro-blogging site Twitter, combines messaging with the advantage of letting other users know where you are as you message.
You are on a weekend break in London and want to find somewhere to eat – applications on the iPhone like StreetFlow will list all nearby eateries. Others like Loopt can tell you if your friends are nearby.
“Speaking of location awareness, Google already does this with Google Maps and Google Earth. It is the ability to use this as part of developing applications and mash-ups that puts it in the ideal situation to take advantage of this trend,” says Nerger.
“Right now the operator knows where you are. Your handset knows where it’s at, but we don’t pass that information on to the site owner.
“That is one of the things we need to change in the industry – we need to make it easier for us to take our location information, which the operators say ‘that belongs to me’, because I think it belongs to the consumer who should be allowed to pass this on to the website author.
“If there is a killer app, it is location. What is important to mobile? It’s like real estate: location, location, location,” says Nerger.
By Marie Boran