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Social media on mobile phones: the future is cloudly, fast and applicable

Jim Rosenberg's picture

This week I’m at the Mobile World Congress, the annual jamboree for some 50,000 people from 200 countries whose livelihoods are focused on the device you probably wake up with, carry everywhere with you, and are more likely to miss than even your misplaced or stolen credit card: your mobile phone. I’m here because more than half of social media activity globally happens via mobile handsets and because if people from Mashable, Twitter, FourSquare and Google are turning up at the same place at the same time, it’s probably worth checking out. 2011 is signaling the full-on dominance of mobile web, internet, and social media in the mobile space.

There’s much to be in awe of here. In just the past 48 hours I’ve played with the 3-D handset on offer from LG, and seen a friend based in Nairobi brandish a $50 Huawei smartphone with Google’s operating system, Android (note that in the U.S., the typical Android handset costs north of $500 without subsidy from a mobile operator).  And for the two billion or so people globally who probably can’t afford even a $50 handset, there was welcome news Monday when a firm called Gemalto announced that it had crafted what I’d call a poor man’s version of Facebook, housed on a SIM card and using SMS to send and receive data between handsets and Facebook servers. This means Facebook, which already reaches 600 million people, will potentially be available to almost anyone on the planet with a mobile device.

Not to be outdone, Twitter has been present in a good way this week. On Monday, CEO Dick Costolo gave the most customer- and human- centric talk I’ve seen in three years of turning up at this event. Highlighting Tweets from celebrities, regular folks, and activists in the Middle East, Costolo declared that Twitter should be like water – available everywhere and not requiring an instruction manual when one uses it. Twitter, one should note, was originally created for mobile devices, and “has mobile DNA in it,” simple to use and a way to connect people to each other.

A year ago, the Mobile World Congress was notable for handing the prime keynote slot not to a mobile operator (the event’s organizer is the trade group for operators, the GSMA) but rather Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google. Of course, Google has made tremendous inroads with its “Mobile First” strategy for product development, making the mobile operating system Android into an ecosystem unto itself. Last February, Schmidt boldly declared that we were all becoming cyborgs and that it was only a matter of time before the lines between IRL (in real life) and what happens online would become so blurred that we wouldn’t think of life without being online. This week, he made the case that we should all have devices in our pockets that not only connect us to our friends or help us find our way around town, but even monitor our health, what we eat, and remind us when we need to go to the doctor.

This year, Google’s Schmidt was less visionary and more technical. That’s fine, because in this geeky  space, we all get the vision, which is a world of people with clever devices in their pockets, connected to a “cloud” of computing power and data by a whip-snap fast connect which, depending on where you live, is called mobile broadband, LTE, or 3G. If you store video or images online, or use sites such as salesforce, Gmail, or GoToMeeting, you are already leveraging cloud computing. As Schmidt put it, we use our mobile devices for “communications, data/browser/computation, and the serendipity machine.” This last term is, of course, silly and spectacularly exciting, because it implies that a smart device in our pocket that can see and hear (with high definition video) and know where we are (with GPS and accelerometers that can tell our speed, etc.), as well as the location of our friends (because we let it know that information via social networks) could actually serve up information, consumer offers, and experiences that we’d otherwise miss.

Of course, one essential aspect of serendipity is unpredictability, which we might not want from our mobile phone or the big company that tethers it to the internet. “Technology should serve humans, not the other way around,” said Schmidt, something with which  anyone who has fumbled with data roaming arrangements could empathize.

On Monday, two of the three big Steves, Ballmer of Microsoft and Elop of Nokia discussed their Johnny-come-lately, shotgun marriage of the highly praised yet underutilized Windows mobile operating system with Nokia’s ginormous mobile distribution network. Sure, Apple has a whole 25% market share of the mobile operating system in the U.S., but Nokia is active in 190 countries. In nearly all of those markets Nokia is working in local languages and has billing arrangements in 132 countries. That (probably) means Microsoft will have access to more markets for billing and app downloads than Google and Apple combined. That’s important for distributing additional services (e.g. anything you’d want to download).   If mobile operators have a business incentive to support Nokia devices and the Windows OS, then they’ll be more likely to push it.  The near universal availability of Nokia devices (and their well established distribution networks) means we may end up with a new digital divide of Google and Apple in North America and Europe, with Windows/Nokia phones everywhere else.

I’d be wary of counting out Microsoft and Nokia in the great game of mobile outreach. 

Other things of interest to me, and maybe to you:

Did you know Russians spend, on average, 6.6 hours a day on social networking sites, and that the major mobile operator there reduced customer turnover by nearly 30% just by analyzing customer social networking patterns (turnover, or churn, is the biggest profitability killer operators face today)?

Though everyone is focused on downloadable applications (“apps”) for mobile devices, the business case for this is still murky for many mobile operators and developers (not to mention content providers), and some think the advent of the next generation of web code, HTML 5, will eliminate the need for apps (though others say apps are the future for everything we’ll do online).

Twitter will offer an open source way for people to translate their platform into local languages. This is important because the early adopters have gone onto Twitter in many countries, and to truly reach scale they’ll need to reach the next generation of users, who might need some help in their own languages.

One sign of Blackberry’s dominance in Indonesia is the fact that some users are putting their Blackberry Messenger handles (PIN codes) on their automobile license plates.

Some major media firms (I can’t name names) have seen more mobile page views than PC/desktop page views in recent months.

When it comes to advertising, mobile is a channel, not a separate strategy. And mobile content needs to be engaging and appealing to the user.

By 2014, more than 90% of mobile data traffic for Telefonica will be video.

Most executives I spoke with this week were focused less on the developed world and more on the “mass market,” which I’d interpret as the not-high-end-early-adopter crowd who has the money and/or inclination to buy the latest, greatest devices and service plans. In the majority of the world, this means people who live on $5 a day and probably live in Kenya, India, Indonesia, or Brazil. This will become more pressing as the internet gets faster and handsets and access become cheaper. 

“Two billion people will enter our conversation in the next couple of years for the first time. It will change our lives,” said Schmidt. “We understand this is disruptive. We’re replacing the economics of scarcity with the economics of ubiquity.” That’s a big challenge – hopefully opportunity – for those of us who communicate and engage with others around the world, especially the millions of people who want nothing more than to have the same access to opportunity and empowerment that so many of us take for granted.

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