Occupy Wifi!

I was sitting in a Starbucks opposite McPherson Square in Washington, DC, connecting my Kindle Fire to the Wifi network, when I noticed this:

Makes sense, I suppose, but interesting that it’s not an open network…


All eyes on Barcelona

It’s late February, which means only one thing in the mobile industry; the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. It’s the place to be to learn about what’s new in the wide world of mobile devices, software and networks.

My former employer Nokia is there in force, along with most of the other big players in the global mobile industry. The one big exception is Apple, which never participates in mobile industry trade shows. This, of course, leads to what has now become a tradition, the stories about how Apple dominates the event even though it’s not there.

I’m not going to try to summarize the news from the FIRA in this blog; there are plenty of sites that do that already. Here are a few that I think are worth a read:

There will of course be thousands of tweets from Barcelona as well. If you want to get your updates 140 characters at a time, you can’t go wrong by starting with ace analyst Ben Wood and the team at VisionMobile.

I’ve already been some enticing announcements, like the latest devices from Sony and Nokia’s 41-megapixel (!) 808 PureView smartphone. What are you reading (or seeing) at MWC this year? Let me know what’s attracting your attention in the comments.


Does every network need to be a social network?

Alicia Eler at ReadWriteWeb reviews the upcoming redesign of flickr, my favorite online photo site. She concludes that flickr needs to be more like Instagram in order to succeed in a world where smartphone cameras outnumber traditional ones.

I don’t agree. As I wrote in a comment to that article, I value flickr because its primary focus is on the images, not the “social.” The groups and contacts are of course critical parts of the experience, but those social components of the service, I think, mostly serve to focus attention back on the pictures. On flickr, I don’t really want to know that much about the other photographers in my contact list or groups. I’m mostly interested in their work.

I want to believe that there’s still a place on the Internet for a service like this (which, by the way, is also one of the few that maintains a large community of paid subscribers like me). Not every network on the Internet needs to be a social network, does it?

The article suggests that flickr needs to provide “a product that’s even more gimmicky fun than Instagram’s tinted filters.” I hope not. It’s true that more people shoot pictures with smartphones than traditional cameras, but that doesn’t mean that all of those people want “gimmicks,” or that smartphone cameras threaten the photo-centric nature of flickr. As most photographers know, a good photographer can create great images with any camera.

(note: the pictures in this post are mine, shot with various smartphones. I’m no André Kertész, but I think they’re not bad)

Apple’s iBargain

A recent article about Sprint’s experience with the iPhone provides interesting insight into the love-hate relationship between the major US carriers and Apple. In short, the carriers love the way iPhone brings in customers and revenue, but are feeling the pain of the billions it costs them in subsidies.

The math is simple: a 16GB iPhone 4s costs $199 with a Sprint contract, and $649 unlocked without a contract. The difference, more or less, is the subsidy that Sprint (and other carriers) pay Apple for the privilege of selling that iPhone to their customers. Apple sold 37 million iPhones over the holiday period, which meant a big subsidy bill for the carriers. This has had a huge effect on the bottom line on both sides: the profit margins of carriers are falling as Apple’s margins and profits increase.

The carriers are willing to put up with this, it appears, as long as Apple keeps delivering the goods, the “goods” being more subscribers and higher revenues. Despite some setbacks, there doesn’t seem to be an end to the Apple innovation and profit pipeline.

This is, however, what the mobile industry said about Nokia in the 90’s and early 00’s, as the team at the 361 Degrees Podcast remind us. In their most recent edition, they ponder the possibility that Apple may be the next Nokia (I think a more apt comparison may be Sony), facing a downfall after years at the top. They conclude that Apple may have the skills to avoid that fate, but that does not mean that the continued success of Apple is guaranteed. The tech world is always changing

photo by Jared Odulio (jaredflo) from flickr

Serving the digital omnivores

I just discovered that I’m a “digital omnivore,” at least according to ComScore, who use this term to refer to people who are “able to engage seamlessly with a steady stream of digital content across different platforms.” In my case, it was the Kindle Fire that made me really omnivorous; since I bought it, I’ve been more interested in finding apps and services that work across all of the screens I use every day: phone, tablet, and desktop computer.

As you might expect, this requirement for the same services everywhere creates huge challenges for designers and developers. How exactly do you deliver the same features, or  perhaps the “best” features, in a consistent way on 4″, 7″ and 19″ screens?

One option is to make assumptions about what your customers are most likely to do on a phone, for example, and deliver an app or web site that only supports those features. This is the approach that LinkedIn has taken; their mobile app offers only a subset of what the full web site supports, and emphasizes the social networking parts of the service as opposed to job searching and profile management (both of which are very important to me right now).

As Stephanie Rieger writes, however, these assumptions can get you into trouble. As your customers get more “omnivorous,” they will want to do anything, anywhere, on whatever device they have at hand, even things that seem extremely difficult (Stephanie’s example: filling out a life insurance form).

Fortunately, smart designers are figuring our interesting ways to satisfy the omnivores and manage the constraints of different screens. I saw an excellent example of this earlier in the week, when I updated the Hipmunk app for Android. I’ve used Hipmunk for a while through Google Chrome on the desktop to find flights. It has perhaps the best user interface I’ve seen for this task, plus a friendly dancing chipmunk.

For the mobile app, they have reproduced the essence of the flight search and selection interface, and added a really clever feature; an option to complete the purchase of your flight on a bigger screen (i.e. a computer) using a pass phrase to retain your results.

I like this solution; it still gives you the option of typing in your credit card number on a tiny screen, but provides a reasonably elegant way to move to a larger screen to complete the task without losing the data you already collected.

I’m working on an analysis tool that I hope will make it easier to develop mobile solutions, like the one from Hipmunk, that comprehend the multi-screen landscape. I call it the “Mobile Space-Time Continuum;” it’s a graphical map of screen size (space) and task time that is intended as a guide for planning how to deliver features in a way that supports various combinations of screens and attention spans.

Please let me know if you want more info on this. It’s still a work in progress, which I’m evaluating by applying it to a couple of projects I’m working on. I also hope to apply it in my future work, wherever that may be.

Mobile Monday DC: post-game wrapup

We had another informative Mobile Monday DC meeting on Feb. 6, this time a session titled “Touchscreens and Touchdowns,” covering the intersection of sports and mobile technology and marketing. Thanks to our sponsors, IMRE Sports and the Georgetown U department of Sports Industry Management, we were able to use a beautiful room at Georgetown, and welcomed a good-sized crowd of GU students studying sports business.

For me, the key insight of the night was the panel’s take on the convergence of mobile, PC, and TV. I’ve always thought of convergence primarily as the availability of the same services on any screen: TV on your phone, email on your TV, etc. As panel moderator Marty Conway from IMRE described it, however, the real meaning of convergence in practice is people using multiple devices at the same time. He quoted data showing that 70% of Americans watch TV and browse the Internet at the same time (I’m certainly in that group). In the sports context, IMRE calls this converged consumer a “spectweeter,”  a fan watching the game while sharing the experience on her phone or tablet.

Joe Dupriest from the Washington Capitals described how the “spectweeter” is coming to live sports events as well, as major teams roll out WiFi networks in their arena and deliver new apps and services to fans’ mobile devices when they’re at the game.

From a mobile strategy and mobile marketing perspective, I think this presents yet another challenge to developers and marketeers when designing mobile apps and services. Not only do you need to design for limited screen space, but also for limited attention spans. That suggests a need for simpler, faster interfaces, even on devices like tablets where screen size is less of an issue.

For advertisers and those who want to monetize through advertising, “spectweeters” seem to be a very challenging customer base, who may not want to take the time to click through your ad or other attraction to see your message.

Following on what we learned this week, this is yet another thing for Mr. Zuckerberg and his pals to think about as they figure out Facebook’s mobile revenue strategy.

[Note: I’m working on a more in-depth analysis of the impact of screen size and attention time on mobile solution design. Watch this space for more info.]

photo by Monica’s Dad from flickr

Mobile breakfast

I spent the morning of Jan. 26 at the Bisnow Future of Mobility session in nearby Northern Virginia, listening two two panels discuss mobile trends and tech for the government and private sectors respectively. Here are a few highlights that I noted during the presentations.

The discussion in the government panel was focused mostly on security, in particular the challenges of moving from government-issued mobile phones to a “bring you own device” (BYOD) approach, where employees can use their own devices at work. AS you might expect, the Department of Defense has very high standards here, so high that only one smartphone, with a modified version of Android, currently meets their requirements for total hardware and software security. For other agencies, there are less stringent requirements, but still serious concerns, shared with many private businesses, about maintaining data security and privacy (for example, privacy of health records).

The discussion also covered uses of mobility to provide government services to citizens and other stakeholders. Two interesting items here:

  • Gwynne Kostin from the GSA Office of Citizen Services said that for delivering government services and information to mobile citizens (like these examples), the real sweet spot is the web. Kostin sees the web as the best way to deliver device-independent information everywhere: not just to mobile devices, but also to the next generation of smart TVs (and perhaps connected cars?)
  • A question from the audience asked about mobile solutions to support clinical trials in developing countries that do not have affordable smartphones. I was happy to hear this reminder that most mobile consumers in the world use feature phones (Nokia has sold 1.5 billion of them). The panelists did not have much to say on the subject, but it deserves attention. Fortunately, many of these feature phones are getting smarter; most already support some sort of close-to-full HTML browsing thanks to browsers from Opera and Nokia.

On the private sector panel, the discussion started with the old favorite: “what is a mobile strategy?” The first answer was (as it should be) that an app is not a strategy. From there, much of the discussion focused more on social media than on mobility as such; perhaps this is a reflection of the dominance of Facebook in mobile web usage. If you look at the data from Opera for example, you see Facebook as the number 1 or 2 site in almost every country country, with the exception of the ex-Soviet orbit, China, and a few others.

Another interesting insight was that mobile strategy is a way of breaking down internal silos in an organization. Companies find that a robust mobile solution requires input from many different groups: groups with data need to provide those data to support APIs, IT teams need to write and support software, etc. This implies that what starts as a mobile strategy may result in a realignment of broader business strategy & structure.

Photo by amalthya from flickr