Recently, each year has been the year that the mobile internet will come of age. The arguments are compelling, both in terms of technology penetration and global precedent. The UK now has more mobile phones than people, and mobile’s boosters look at Japan and Scandinavia, and predict that the mobile phone will become the technology of choice to access the internet within a few years.
But out in the real world, you’d be forgiven for not noticing. The bulk of operator advertising is still focused on voice and SMS. Apart from ringtones, mobile content is limited and the user experience of accessing it often deeply flawed. The off-portal mobile internet is in its infancy. And location-based services, always seen as the holy grail of mobile marketing, seem as far away as ever.
For most marketers, this is not really a cause for concern. Mobile is back where the Web was in the pre-boom period: interesting if you’re technologically inclined, but far too small-scale to be worth worrying about.
Yet there are reasons why this might be about to change. The most important is that the pricing model of UK operators is shifting. Both T-Mobile and 3 introduced flat-rate packages last year, admittedly running alongside existing "per kB" offerings, and the other major operators are expected to follow suit this year. Those with longish memories will recall that it was Freeserve’s launch of unmetered internet access in 1999 that really kickstarted the UK consumer internet boom.
The second reason is that it’s getting easier to pay for stuff on mobile, whether it’s delivered to your phone or it’s a physical product. Payforit, the new system adopted by the operators last autumn, has its flaws, but it’s a standard approach with a code of conduct behind it, which makes life easier, and more secure, for consumers.
The third reason is the deals the search engines struck with the operators last year. Another turning point in the development of internet use was the decline of the walled garden approach employed by the big portals, which coincided with the rise of Google. Nowadays search engines are a universally accepted way of navigating the Web. Putting that same trusted interface in front of consumers won’t just make it easier for them to find content outside the operators’ portals, it’ll make the process of doing so familiar and comfortable.
All of this still leaves a lot of questions to be answered about the mobile internet before marketers can really start to take advantage of it. The limitations of screen size, for example, make it hard to predict how advertising might work. And all the original questions remain about the extent to which people regard their mobile phone as part of their personal space and how that will affect the sort of marketing communications they accept.
But there’s another reason why things are starting to change. As we saw at the 3GSM conference in Barcelona last week, the big content providers, particularly the record labels, are realising they’re missing out on a lot of money. And that’s making them put pressure on the operators.
Michael Nutley, editor-in-chief, NMA