Will Nokia be Connecting People with Facebook?

A nice piece of rumour was brought out by the fine folks at MoCoNews: allegedly Nokia is in talks with Facebook to cooperate on mobile. And if this was not enough, there is also talk about the mighty Finns taking an investment in Facebook, and this would arguably be somewhat more significant (in cash terms at least) than the $10m stake the Samwer brothers of Jamba-fame acquired last week.

MoCoNews speculates that this could involve something as prominent as the YouTube button on the iPhone. This of course would appear to be a challenge given that most carriers will determine themselves what is and what is not on the handsets that are being sold through their retail outlets. But then Nokia has recently made strides on that front recently (as will be shown below).
A move with Facebook would fit in seamlessly with Nokia's evolving strategy towards providing entertainment services rather than only being a hardware vendor (albeit the world's largest by far with a whopping 38% market share globally): 2007 marked a year were Nokia acquired a number of companies and announced a number of initiatives and products that push the company way further down the service provision end than ever before: it acquired digital map specialist Navteq (Finland's largest acquisition ever), bought the mobile marketing and advertising folks from Enpocket, it struck a content deal with Telefonica and another one with Vodafone, all gearing towards its comprehensive content offering Ovi (see here).

Anssi Vanjoki, Nokia's multimedia guru, went on record in saying that the Internet will be the tool that will tear down the carriers' walled gardens. He continues to preach his ongoing theme (I heard about this the first time 2 years or so ago) that carriers are no entertainment companies and should therefore not fiddle with content. That might well be true, I guess. Now, if it comes to the Internet opening those walls, well, Facebook ranks #7 on the Alexa traffic charts. And, distinct to the (few) higher-ranked sites, Facebook's clean set-up and approach would seemingly make a conversion to (higher-end) mobile handsets easier than with, say, MySpace (#6).

Finally, Nokia tried to coin the phrase of "circular entertainment" (I blogged about it here where I mocked their "survey" approach) where they hold that, by 2012, 25% of all media would be created and consumed from within a circle of peers rather than from traditional media. If or if not the numbers were correct, the concept is very convincing (read e.g. Jaiku-founder Jyri Engstrom's rather insightful thoughts on object-centered sociality). Enter Facebook... 'Nuff said, I guess...


News Flash (Lite)

A while ago, I blogged about a cool new site French company Mobitween had launched, namely on user-generated games. Now, the good folks are a bridgehead in mobile Flash (they had their fingers in the code more or less from day 1). So, where is Flash Lite today?

Here's the install base numbers as recently released:

From just over 14% to 23% in a year (yes, I know, this is based on a flat 2 bn handsets out there)... In any event, that is rather respectable, don't you think?

Flash has the great advantage that its graphics are vector-based and therefore scalable. This means that most of the porting nightmare that contributes to 30-50% of the cost of mobile games, etc would fall away. Nice thought... It would make the whole commercial model of mobile games dramatically rosier. And it appears to be gaining traction: e.g. does Adobe make Flash Lite available on Verizon phones (and I've been told - confidentially - of one publisher having recorded more than 2m Flash game downloads on there already).

Flash is particularly good for casual games, which is, as everyone close(-ish) to mobile games knows, all the hype for the (small) mobile screen, and rightly so, as it is normally easier to adapt a casual game to the screen limitations (not even starting to talk about processing power) that are inherent to mobile phones. A natural fit, huh? Just look what Mobitween and their users have come up with! And I don't even get started on Atom/Shockwave (read an interview here) and all the others out there...

Is it then that we only need to wait until Flash Lite (finally) reaches the mass market? On the web, Flash hurt Sun's Java badly. Will the same happen on mobile? Or will Sun be smarter this time, and make sure that its currently dominant position will be reinforced by making it easier for developers to publish on their platform? The jury is out...

The Sun rises on QR -- posh mobile bar codes, that is...

The UK's favourite, erm, newspaper, the Sun, records good numbers with a recently introduced QR (Quick Response) codes using 3GVision's i-nigma application. This is how it works:

"The barcode-based technology enables users to scan their mobile phone over pages of the newspaper, which in turn uploads relevant information onto the device. For example, a football fan could read a match report and use the technology to upload video highlights of the game."

The Sun, the above source reports, has acquired 11,000 users of this, and all this in just over a month. This is quite respectable one might say although it is only a tiny fraction of the Sun's daily readership of 7.9m (as we are informed here). The Sun freely admits that it needs to educate consumers on how to use this; it explains the service online and also plans to produce a pull-out to add to this. This would point to rather high expectations of what the service will do.

The paper's hopes are that the service will help it to boost printed editorial and advertising content in the publication, and help print to become a more profitable medium (they are apparently suffering currently).

The advantage of this is, of course, quite obvious: the advertiser benefits as it can directly measure the effectiveness of its (QR-enabled) print campaigns through the amount of traffic received. The codes can even be used as vouchers. The user could simply scan a code and present the resulting data at a retail outlet to receive discounts or special offers. No surprise then that it is reported that a number of advertisers, including Sky, Ladbrokes and 20th Century Fox (the first and the last belong to the same Rupert Murdoch's media empire as the Sun though).

The codes, alas, are not so new: It is said to be the most common form of bar code in Japan today.


EA, the iPhone and Mobile 2.0 in general...

EA's Travis Boatman, VP Worldwide Studios, recently commented about the adverse effects Apple's iPhone would have on the sales of mobile games. He moaned that, whilst the device was good, "it's a replacement for someone who had a Razr before. They still want their content but there's no distribution platform in place so there's a negative impact on the industry."

Now, is that short-termism or the understandable fear of someone who oversees classic game development studios of being replaced by something else, namely online games. Because this is in fact what the iPhone is promising: a replication of the web on mobile. One could say, it's the entry of mobile 2.0. Online games on desktops became prevalent with the ascent of broadband and data flatrates. This is exactly the environment quite a few people predict for mobile, too. And whilst it was "World of Warcraft" et al that gave the EA's of this world the shivers on PCs, it is now the iPhone - but not because it's the iPhone but because it is the first device that, due to its intrinsically different approach (OS, touchscreen), focuses solely and only on the web as the fulfillment medium of content dreams.

Someone then also smartly noted that "[t]he problem of transferring games to new phones has actually plagued the mobile gaming industry since its inception. When users upgrade to a new phone, they most often can't bring a game that they bought for their old phone along with them." And the market data seems to confirm the challenges the industry faces: the percentage of mobile phone users who have ever bought a mobile game increased from 10 percent in 2005 to just 12 percent in 2007; that's not much...

Moving from downloadable games (or other content items) to ones that can be played (or consumed) online reduces the complexity to users enormously. Due to bandwidth challenges, there are some constraints as to what can be played with a certain level of satisfaction online and what can't: as a rule, everything turn-based, casual puzzles, etc would appear to be adaptable, heavier, more action-related games can't. However, is this any different on the desktop or, for that matter, the console? Has anyone ever heard of online versions of Call of Duty or EA FIFA? No, because they would not translate in such a constrained environment. Now, Tetris (published on Apple's iPod by, guess what, EA), Zuma, Luxor, Bejewelled, Poker, on the other hand, provide a rather splendid user experience even when played online and, lo and behold, they are predominantly found as online games on the desktop, too.

The same applies to other content sectors, too: prior to YouTube, the consumption of video via desktop was niche. One might watch a DVD on a long-ish train ride but who in their right mind would download shorter clips to watch them later (well, maybe with the exception of certain post-watershed offerings)? YouTube came and made it easy to consume AND operated in an environment dominated by an economical usage ecosphere, i.e. data flat rates and sufficient bandwidth, and off it went.

For EA (and any other mobile games publisher) this may mean that, in the mid term (i.e. once now pertinent issues such as data charges, bandwidth constraints, etc have been tackled), users will go online on their mobiles, too, to play such casual titles. However, fans of more intense genres will continue to download. The challenge is therefore not so much someone like Apple and any of their products but the current distribution and commercial environment (namely regarding billing) that would appear to slow down take-up. So, yet again, the finger points to the operators who, from their position understandably (why would they be reduced to a bit pipe if they don't have to?), are in the way of turning mobile into a media consumption channel like any other. The front is however getting diluted: more and more operators throw their data plans into the open and offer more generous plans to users (led by 3 who even offer dedicated Skype mobile phones with the respective data plan to come with it).

And what will EA do? Well, continue to publish games which only make sense when played on dedicated devices. Oh, and they will probably release the Sims as an online version... Not so bad then...

Mobile Bloggers unite: in Barcelona

Mobile bloggers who read this and have not yet registered (well, can you then really be mobile bloggers?), note that Rudy de Waele, mobile blogger extraordinaire, with the generous support from his people at MyStrands hold yet another Mobile Sunday ahead of this year's Mobile World Congress (I am still itching to write 3GSM...) in Barcelona, more specifically on Sunday, 10 February.

Mobile Sunday is, in their own words, "an unofficial, informal and generally cool and funky gathering of mobile bloggers and their chums", and, yes, I'll attend in the vain hope that something cool and funky will rub off...

You'll find the registration page here.

See you all in Barcelona!


ESPN Mobile gets 4.9m hits in 24 hours (10% more than on PC site)

MoCoNews points us to an article reporting about some noteworthy stuff on the usage of the revamped ESPN Mobile (you will recall that the full-blown MVNO they had tanked horribly and the service was then re-launched as a mobile internet destination). They (well, not they but "an executive briefed on the data") said that for one 24-hour period, ESPN's wireless NFL section, with 4.9 million visits, topped the PC NFL section's 4.5 million visits. And that's impressive!

In the same article, M:Metrics was quoted to point out that it was convenience that did the trick, and this is of course where the data might be a bit distorted (it might not be but it's unclear): ESPN Mobile is available in two flavours. ESPN MVP is exclusively to Verizon high-end data subscribers who get it for free. So this basically supports the case that the mobile internet will become a fully-fledged "competitor" to the "old" internet once bandwidth and cost for bandwidth will be similar to the internet proper; and that is not a big miracle, is it? The normal ESPN Mobile is available to anyone but may be subject to data charges. It would be interesting to know the shares the two sites/apps have in the above data.

But I don't want to divert from the fact that 4.9m mobile hits inside 24 hours is great by any measure. Sport is a wonderful starting point for mobile internet usage anyway as it is so time-sensitive (it is not really the same thing to record a live game and then watch it hours later after the city is steeped in the team colours already) and people all over the world are so passionate about their favourite sports and teams. Great stuff, surely!

Handmark gets its hands on Astraware

One is a leading content provider for the niche smartphone market, the other a leading games developer for the niche smartphone market (Palm, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, etc), now they will become the leading content publisher for the niche but quickly growing smartphone market. Enter the reported acquisition of Astraware by Handmark.

Handmark publishes smartphone versions of e.g. Tetris and Scrabble and also runs the Pocket Express mobile news service. Astraware does the same for Bejewelled, Zuma and Chuzzle but also has a sizable portfolio of generic games and applications. They also have their coding hands in iPod games. As a lot of high-end smartphone stuff is retailed through shops where Handmark has a decent footprint, the two should improve margins on Astraware titles immediately. Presumably their distribution footprints for the remainder (e.g. is Astraware a Microsoft Gold Partner and embeds lots on Windows Mobile devices) also provide for some synergies.

Unfortunately nothing was reported on deal terms but, on the merits, this makes sense. Good luck, guys!

Yahoo follows suit: presents development platform for mobile

After all the buzz in the back-end of last year over the Google-led Open Handset Alliance and their Android OS, Yahoo! has now presented its own view on how to reduce the complexity within the mobile landscape by announcing a development platform for "mobile internet applications".

It is, alas, not the full bag of tricks: Unlike Android, which is of course basically an OS, the Yahoo! scheme only foresees tools to allow the creation of widgets to run under the company's Yahoo! Go mobile service or in any mobile web browser. This means that "mobile internet applications" in Yahoo speak do not include "classic" mobile applications (developed in J2ME, BREW, Symbian, etc, and then downloaded to a user's phone), and the latter will not benefit from the initiative.

The question (and this may well be one of the big ones for 2008) is therefore if the (short) age of downloadable applications is already dawning. Because, unlike the Internet, mobile is a cluttered space with a gazillion operating systems and middleware layers on even more different devices competing for market share. Ease to port applications at least across handsets and ideally also across operating systems is therefore the crucial factor. Only if downloadable applications (including indeed a software package like Yahoo! Go) really are displaced by the mobile internet proper would this change.

Commentators note that Yahoo! Go is not normally available on handsets as most tier-1 operators will (and apparently each and every US carrier currently does) simply remove pre-installed applications prior to delivery to customers. However, this does not seem to matter too much as far as the new initiative is concerned as it is said to run on every browser, too. It may take away from discovery and therefore usage so this is where it appears to chip away on the benefits: Whilst the Yahoo! move would seem the much less complex initiative compared to Google's attempts to take on the OS heavyweights, it comes at the cost of lower usability for users and also less actual benefit for developers: why would you develop for that platform if visibility, discovery, usage and therefore commercial reward are foggy at best?

I'm not convinced (yet).


Even Gameloft can fail, apparently: disconnects Connect

Mobile games giant Gameloft, the one company in the space that seemed immune to failure, apparently shuts down its Gameloft Connect D2C service. Gameloft had started this as a iTunes-style application with all the bells and whistles: it was a downloadable PC application that allowed users to browse Gameloft's catalogue online and bypass bandwidth restrictions (and billing charges) of mobile networks by utilising the computer's bandwidth. Games could be loaded via a PC-handset connection and activated by SMS.

However, now it seems to only signify that direct-to-consumer propositions for mobile games are a tough business. They may have wanted too much: mobile games are a very real business but they seem to be too niche still to justify a full-blown integrated product like this, in particular when it is not a one-stop shop but only provides access to one publisher's catalogue (even if such a good one such as Gameloft's). A real pity that!

Location, location, location: The future of mobile social networks

What a title, huh? Following the hype on the Internet with Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and all the others, social networks started to see traction on mobile, too. Jaiku (acquired by Google) showed the way. Twitter's next move is waiting to happen. Plazes is waiting in the wings. And then there are all the others still flying under the radar (or, in Silicon Valley speak, operating in stealth mode). These would include people like French Mobiluck and German student-come-entrepreneurs from aka-aki. There is also Finnish venture Ironstar Helsinki whose MoiPal combines mobile, social networks and games.

Most of these companies attempt a rather wonderful thing, namely to bring the networks back into the real world by combining it with location-based (or should one better say: location-sensitive) components. Mobiluck scored early successes with a Bluetooth application that scans the immediate vicinity for other users; think Saudi girls quite literally under wraps having the opportunity to contact that OMG guy on the other side of the club... Mobiluck tells us they scored more than 750,000 downloads of their application, and all with the most basic of seed funding and without marketing. Impressive!

Unfortunately, very little is being published about the actual success of these initiatives. Facebook got some coverage over the release of their Blackberry client, Jaiku more or less went silent since the acquisition by Google (probably working hard to integrate with other Google goodies), Mobiluck and aka-aki is in closed betas, MoiPal continues to grow its proposition but doesn't engage in much PR so far either (some coverage here though). Twitter seems to get their heads down and work (a brief evangelizing piece in the Guardian was about it). Plazes holds a "camp" in Berlin later this month to develop its propositions further but doesn't tell us much more either...

On a strategic level, it may be expected that a couple of online and other media players without a footprint in the space might feel inclined to gobble up some of these guys: if Google leads the way (as they do with Jaiku), others may feel compelled to follow. So where's the big thing?

Social networks are about interaction. Facebook started to gain traction because US college students had an opportunity to organize their social lives. In the US, the relative penetration of broadband is high, whilst advanced mobile use may have to catch up with some European (and Asian) countries. However, the links always are somewhere in the real world, and mobile phones offer the opportunity to actually link back to some real-world beacons, a simple yet incredibly powerful one being location (isn't it so much more exciting to liaise with that hot someone if you know that he/she is within a couple of hundred yards from where you are?). Your mobile is always in your pocket (yes, check now), and it carries the inherent possibility to identify your geographical location right now. Simple, huh? However, simplicity requires that speed, ease of use and reliability of the service are a given. They are the match points - next to absolute reach of course.

The integration of currently existing tools, most prominently IM, is a given here, and most of the companies mentioned above provide for integration of MSN Messenger (or Windows Live Messenger as it is now known) already. And this makes a lot of sense as it is a convenient and now incredibly established way of communication between friends. The integration of IM into mobile social networks also promotes the convergence of the Internet as it is (or was?) known and mobile devices. People who use IM are normally always online whenever they are on their computers. Extending it to mobile is quite literally a no-brainer and moreover the easiest gate of entry: it is nothing new to users, and it adds a lot of convenience to mobile users.

Technically, triangulation (using signal strength with base stations) seemed to have been the game initially. However, as this was too tough to do (deep integration with every carrier, and for rather sensitive data), everyone from early leaders (remember ZagMe?) all the way to Jaiku, Twitter, etc relied and relies on the crudest of things, namely SMS. Facebook has a rudimentary WAP site and a rather cool Blackberry app but then? Mobiluck uses a combination: WAP site, web access plus Bluetooth (a downloadable app using the handsets' Bluetooth functionality). This is promising as it utilizes handset-based features, which does away with long-winding negotiations with every carrier and a much easier available dataset of location data. Now, does it also experiment with a deeper integration with everyone's new favourite feature, namely GPS (see here for the latest on the hype)? Let's hope so! And let's also hope that this will be only step 1 of many to make social networks truly social again -- by interacting with real people in real life contexts.


Mobile Phone Joysticks get money, yes really!

The good folks from MoCoNews report that Boston-based firm ZeeToo whose business is the production of mobile joysticks (yes, you read that correctly) raised a first round worth a respectable $6.9m. We read that "the company’s Zeemote controllers communicate with mobiles via Bluetooth, and enable exchange of data and applications with the handsets. The company has also developed other controllers, including a trackball controller for use as a mouse on a mobile phone, an accelerometer based controller for games that are controlled with motion and gestures, and a special car keyfob designed for use in location-based services (LBS) applications."

I must admit that I am rather hesitant to believe in this venture's success although I naturally wish them all the very best. At least, respectable mobile game developer Finblade (the guys who founded and run IOMO, which was then sold to Infospace) developed a game that is "powered" by the controller. However, I am not sure if people will get used to this ("do I have everything I need? Wallet, keys, phone, errm, joystick?"), and I must also say that I don't think the video in the previous link would appear to entice people into embarking onto that adventure...

Twistbox reverse merger

Twistbox has undertaken a reverse merger into a shell traded on the pink sheets (the unregulated stock trading system). It entered into a respective agreement with Mandalay Media, Inc., a company that was inactive since 2005. Twistbox is a spinoff from Waat Media, the mobile "late night entertainment" company. It was originally formed as a merger of Waat's mobile game activities with German mobile game developer Charismatix. Since the spinoff in 2006, the company had raised about $32.5 million in funding, from Spark Capital, ValueAct Capital (cf. here) and some strategic investors, which helped it evolve into an internationally-active mobile content publisher, with branded WAP sites, video clips and games seemingly the spearheads.

The management team seems to remain on board. The move presumably serves as an exit for existing investors and - hopefully - a source for fresh capital. No word on further activities though, which is a bit of a pity. I shall therefore assume that my previous post still is valid.