Everyone in the mobile industry wants to emulate Apple’s success with their Apps Store by having one of their own. They also want to believe that they’re offering mobile Internet. But if they were to spend just a few moments looking around they might question the sanity of either view.
There’s no doubt about the success of the Apps store. Customers with iPhones appear to be deliriously happy to pay to put shortcut icons onto their phones. But does it make sense? Or is the industry just repeating the self delusion it first perpetrated when it declared that WAP was mobile Internet?
There are some fundamental differences between mobile and wired internet, not least of which is, if the Apps Store concept is so good, why doesn’t it exist on the wired internet? Could it be because the mobile and wired internet really aren’t the same thing? The mobile industry does not want to talk about that, as it undermines the whole concept of the mobile internet. So let’s talk about it…
The first is the limited data capacity of a mobile network, which can rapidly grind to a halt. Wired networks have not done a bad job of keeping up with Moore’s law – they’ve been able to expand to encompass capacity demands relatively easily. Doing the same with mobile networks requires a lot of infrastructure investment, with no obvious return.
The second is cost of transmission. As a rough guide, it costs an operator around one thousand times as much to transmit the same amount of data over a mobile network as it does over a wired one. Think about that carefully and it’s difficult to understand how any business model from the fixed line Internet can be translated to the mobile space. It might be internet, but not as we know it.
The third is cost of access when you’re travelling. When I connect my laptop up to a Wi-Fi network in most of the world, it’s free to access. If I’m foolish enough to ask for Internet access on my phone anywhere other than in my home network, the roaming data cost is crippling. Real internet access is largely the same cost wherever I go. Mobile internet remains local internet for local people. Unless you’re in the happy position of having someone else who pays your phone bill.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some great models out there. Apple has done a brilliant job of persuading us that mobile applications are compelling. What is still to be proven is whether that model is scalable.
The difference in data costs of wired and mobile internet makes one wonder where the revenues in mobile internet will come from? I’m writing this in Vancouver, where I’m attending a wireless healthcare conference. All over the town are adverts showing mobile phones with a Facebook application. Facebook is one of the “Must-have” applications of the day, but no-one seems to be asking whether it is making money? It may have users by the tens of millions, but that’s only a business case if you can flog the business off to someone else who’s impressed by sheer volume of users. It’s not making money in a sustainable or scalable manner. It brings to mind that old, possibly apocryphal quote from the New York tailor that “I make a loss on every suit, but I make up for it in volume”. Do a roll call of all of the internet flavours of the month – Flickr, Facebook, YouTube or Twitter and they’re probably all in the same category, busy sewing up dodgy suits.
That probably doesn’t matter when the cost of delivering them to a wired user is essentially nothing. It matters a lot when you’re delivering them on a mobile network that needs massive infrastructure investment to cope with the increased demand for bandwidth, particularly if you can’t charge more for it.
With all of the excitement around, it’s easy to forget where Apple differs from most of the other players. What they have done so well is to offer something compelling. That doesn’t come from technology – it comes from an understanding of making an offering compelling, which in turn means making it easy to use and easy to understand.
I suspect that the lesson the mobile industry really needs to learn from Apple is one of philosophy. Within the Apple board room, I’d imagine that words like usability, user experience and ease of use are common parlance, which then trickle down to the engineering teams. It’s about delivering core experience. It’s taking technology out of a product and selling an experience.
I doubt they’re used very much elsewhere in the higher echelons of the mobile industry. The rest of the industry is still struggling with technology and marketing and is desperate to utilise them both to emulate Apple’s success. In doing that they will probably fail. What they need to do is to think outside the box and find ways to convince users that they have a better vision. As long as they remain unable to do that, the iPhone will reign supreme. If they can embrace the user experience and bring us an original vision, they could consign it to the same fate as the 8-track cassette.