Mobile will be big, no really!

This is something of an old hat but, alas, the conference season in full swing (with my day job making serious demands there) and a little flu to go with it, and I keep falling behind.

Anyhow, at the Davos World Economic Forum's "power panel power panel" with the head honchos from Google (Eric Schmidt), Sony (Sir Howard Stringer), NBC Universal (Jeffrey Zucker) and, to top it all off, China Mobile (Wang Jianzhou), a couple of interesting comments were made that do merit some reflection, I think. Google CEO Schmidt in particular was vocal on a couple of points of interest.

One point is so blatantly obvious that I hardly dare to repeat it: "it's the recreation of the Internet." Doh. Yes, all the same features, all the same cornerstones: restricted bandwidth, warped business models (one used to pay per minute for dial-up and/or for KB of data, remember, and that would include any ads delivered to you [only that there weren't that many -- for rather obvious reasons]), restricted processing power of devices (my 80286 with a whopping 2o MB hard drive was considered a rocket at its time, and I was the first in my class with a 9,600 bps modem), etc, etc. So for the whole world to get all excited when Mr Schmidt mentions these parallels, I was, well, somewhat disappointed.

Moving on, Schmidt suggested that mobile phones, in particular future ones, would increasingly offer the wonderful touch of being location-aware, in other words come with GPS, and this is indeed what users seem to want. China Mobile's Wang pondered that phone calls might in fact come for free as LBS may well take over... But isn't Google one of a very select few who can actually can run carrier-independent zone detection, i.e. get proximity data already? Why do I need to know when a user is within 3' from my burger shop, aren't 100 yards enough? As long as he/she's hungry, I'd say it is. So, is it all there already then? It of course is only one piece...

I would venture that it is in the process of unfolding: next to the handset technology (data usage per se isn't much fun on a 4-year old black-and-white 6310i), the main obstacle to a more comprehensive take-up is costs of use, namely data charges. Do you remember the Internet in dial-up days? Connect, retrieve e-mail, disconnect. Not much time for anyone to get additional messages (commercial or not) across then. Only when flat rate data packages became available did people start to use the medium to its potential. And this seems to be where we will go in 2008. A lot of the large carriers now offer flat rate data plans and, as it wouldn't be much fun otherwise, open their walled gardens in the process. This effectively gets the Internet proper onto the user's phones, and not only a minutely small, hand-picked extract from it. Will this stir usage and uptake? You bet!

Could it be better? Oh, the holy grail of connecting data: see who was where when with whom doing what... This meets widespread privacy concerns and would also require a number of rather complex arrangements between key players that all guard their little secrets jealously as they don't want to give their advantage away: the carrier doesn't want to tell, the advertizer either, and the solutions provider wouldn't ever.

But, hey, aside from that, it is only the "usual", i.e. the things that I and so many other frequently lament: fragmentation, non-availability of consistent platforms and interfaces. But on all of these fronts, huge steps have been made forward (e.g. do Apple iPhone users google 50x as often as others, and 95% regularly use the Internet; other carriers moan the data usage is "unheard of"). If it is Google's 4 demands or less doesn't matter so much: as long as there comes more consistence, so that users get familiar with the approach and the use, it'll fly. With the mobile phone always sitting in their pocket, i is too close to people's hearts -- well hands.