And A WAPPY New Year

by , Dec 19, 2006, 2:30 PM
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I have been doing the usual round of year-end phoners with executives in the mobile world, surveying them on the state of the industry, the emerging trends, yadda, yadda. My impression is that except for one major trend, we will spend a lot of 2007 in wait-and-see mode for the sexier developments.

Some of the trends and predictions are pretty, well, predictable. The bigger mobile marketing firms are seeing budgets move from five-digit afterthoughts to six-digit lines on a goal-driven plan. We may finally see some iterations of mobile couponing make a splash in 2007, but we're waiting for a major retailer to commit to the staffing and infrastructure support that make this model work. If we see mobile video make an impact at all this year, it will be late in the calendar and only after the holiday phone upgrades. Mobile search remains unevolved on both supply and demand sides. Until a major carrier gets behind the concept of a search box on deck and actively promotes the phone as a link to local listings, users really won't get the opportunity to demonstrate whether this model is going to work for them.

The only sure thing for 2007 is the emergence of WAP and off-portal distribution as substantial channels marketers can use to push content directly to the end user. If M:Metrics extrapolations are to be believed, then 22 million Americans accessed news and information on their mobile browsers in October, up 15% in a month. In fact, WAP use has been up 10% or more each month for much of the last half of 2006. The base is getting there quickly. Given the frustration of drilling into the carrier's decks to find anything, many people now understand that it is easier to text a URL than navigate the interface.

Going direct to consumer with marketing messages and content will be de rigueur within the next six months. "At this time next year, we will be talking about how great the content market is," Alex Campbell, CEO, Vibes Media recently told me. "I think now that Verizon has launched off-deck, it opens up the market for everybody." Well, Big V is coming slowly to the open garden party and letting select partners push content from the Web to its network and billing system. Still, by early 2007 marketers finally will know that ringtone, game or wallpaper pushes can reach the majority of U.S. mobile users, and that will make a difference in the scope and kind of data they deploy.

As off-portal distribution and robust WAP sites grow, we will see the media companies rush in. Just this week, Japanese game company Konami announced a direct-to-consumer model that lets users test-drive games at their site before buying, and a mobile portal can download to the handset that pulls even more content directly to the phone. A new mobile video service, mywaves.com, is promising to send 1000s of customized video feeds directly to media player phones, including clips from the major broadcasters. While the deck will always be important, I think that 2007 will be the year we see some major brands and more than a few big media companies do an end run around the carriers and their decks and make D2C an important mobile channel.

I am more enthused about what we will see happening on the WAP browser this year as media and marketing stake out territory here. "We are going to see a nice increase in the amount of WAP use," says enPocket CEO Mike Baker. Standardization and speed have been the two things holding mobile content back from reaching the addressable audience. The technology itself has kept us from getting a clearer picture of how many U.S. mobilistas really want to use the data channel. "This market needs a standard gauge railway," Baker says.

Users and media companies are not waiting for the carriers to provide that standardization. Instead, both groups are rushing onto WAP. We have already seen the front edge of this trend in Crisp Wireless's excellent "Project Runway" site for Bravo, Maxim magazine's new mobile site, and the Fabio I Can't Believe It's Not Butter site I wrote about a few weeks ago.

I think that while the carriers figure out their models and partnerships, and test, test, test the emerging technologies, the media and marketing brands may pass them by and establish D2C and WAP beachheads with consumers that have little to do with "on-deck placement" and plush co-marketing deals with wireless companies. I think that the big creaking sound you will hear in 2007 will be the center of gravity shifting from under the carriers' feet.

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