Redialing, Part 1: Mobile Browsing

by , Nov 14, 2006, 2:00 PM
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As anyone who ever signed up for an online calendaring program or contact-sharing network well knows, it is hard to keep up good intentions in the digital world. More often than not, we promise ourselves that this time we will keep up with these little digital conveniences, and diligently add our contacts into the database or maintain our public calendar. In the end, the success of technologies, soft or hard, boils down to habit. Personal Information managers (PIMs) always seemed like such a good idea, and for years software companies chased that dream of getting all of us to dump our contacts, notes, ideas, etc. into unstructured databases like Lotus Agenda. But too few of us ever got into the routine of putting our data into the hopper. Few of us ever remembered to re-visit that calendaring Web site. In short, unless good digital ideas become part of our routine (like e-mail or personalized Web portals) they never fly.

 And so I thought it was a good idea in the next few columns to revisit some of the mobile marketing and content models I have been trying these past few months, to see whether I continue to use them over time or whether they simply wear out their welcome on my already-cluttered review phones.

Granted, I am not the ideal one-man focus group. I have about eight working review phones in the office, and I probably juggle more mobile content apps in a week than most consumers engage in a year. My tolerance for poor user interfaces is about as low as my tolerance for Lifetime TV (men can be really bad people, don't you know?) or Nickelodeon cartoons (let's stop pretending to be hip and admit that "Spongebob Squarepants" is not funny). On the plus side, however, I am a total media slut, so I eat up everything from news headlines to recipes to Bejeweled. Well, except for Lifetime and "Spongebob"... and reality shows... and sports... .and "CSI"... and "American Idol"... oh, and that loathsomely oafish O'Reilly...and ... . Okay, not so sluttish as I thought. While my qualifications as a normal red-blooded American mobile phone user may be questionable, I am seeing a lot of mobile content and marketing, and some patterns of use are becoming apparent to me.

Let's start with WAP browsing, which on an EV-DO network has become a much more fluid and inviting experience in recent months. My Sprint Vision Web browser is brimming with bookmarks now, from CosmoGirl (it's research, dammit!) to Slate.com, the YaGoogle portal pages, to Maxim's upcoming mobile sites (it's research, dammit!).

Two patterns are noticeable. First, I am a little ticked at Sprint every time I load my browser because it is not letting me start up at a homepage filled with these bookmarks. Must I be two clicks away from the list of destinations I want rather than the ones Sprint wants me to want? This seems like a little thing, but it demonstrates to me how much my expectations from a mobile Web experience is now informed by my online experience, where the browser loads with my bookmarks visible or just opens on a customized browser page. As the mobile Web experience speeds up, and looks and feels like a desktop Web, I am much less inclinded to forgive this platform its idiosyncrasies. Cingular has had a customizable Web browser for nearly a year already, and I think the other Tier 1s should follow suit.

The second big usage pattern that fascinates me is mobile sampling. As I peruse the Washington Post headlines and those make-up tips from CosmoGirl (research!) I am less inclined to read than to scan for the items I want to read online later. I have already mentioned in an earlier column that I find myself using the Sprint and Verizon on-deck music download services this way, as a kind of sampling and discovery device.

The same is holding true for text content like news. I am e-mailing the most interesting links to myself. Crisp Wireless, which powers a number of these branded media mobile sites, told me recently that they were surprised to see the levels of URL-forwarding and self-emailing going on. Unfortunately, the mobile browsers and the mobile sites themselves do not make this process easy enough. It takes several clicks on my Sprint browser to do this, when I really want a single button that is smart enough to do the job. As well, the landing pages I e-mail myself are not always designed for a desktop Web browser. Too often I send myself a hot link that opens a WAP page in my Firefox browser, when I wanted the full desktop experience.

Finally, it continues to be clear to me that alerting systems have to be part of the mobile content mix. A customized mobile home page will be a good start in reminding me of the mobile content brands I like, but the publishers who send me SMS messages with WAP links are the ones I am using most often.

The Week recently started a very good service that pushes a weekly headline to me for a favorite column. In The Week's typically brief but informative style, the headline tells me enough to know whether the story is worth linking to. The distribution is sparse enough to remain welcome, but insistent enough to ensure that I am back at their brand (viewing their Microsoft banners) most weeks.

Some mobile usage research shows that people often forget what is on their deck, whether it is a WAP bookmark or even an application like video for which they pay a monthly fee. The deck and interface structure still are not made for content merchandising. They fail to remind us of what we like or what we have on our decks. I would like to see alerting built into the mobile browser itself. Make it easy for users to ID the content they consult most often (or would like to), and turn it into an SMS alert with a WAP link.

I am sure that I am asking for more than the carriers are willing or able to give in short order. I don't even know how hard the carriers are looking at mobile Web behaviors in order to revise the browsing experience. I do know that the speed of the mobile Web has a direct effect on my willingness to engage content. It also has a direct effect on my expectations of the experience. I want my content to float to the top more effectively. I want the ability to send things to myself and others much more smoothly and intuitively. I want the content that is most important to me to behave like a phone call from an important person and tell me when it is there to be consumed.

The bad news for wireless is that the speed companies are very good at delivering only ratchets up our expectations for the media experience, which they are notoriously poor at providing. The good news is that I am asking for these improvements at all. A year or two ago, the speed and usability of the mobile Web was so poor I didn't even care whether it got better. Now, I really want it to work.  

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