Carriers Are Finally Getting WAPPED

In yet another sign that media, not carriers, are driving the bus now when it comes to mobile content and marketing, Fox Interactive Media yesterday launched its MySpace Mobile Web service. Also available about now or soon are mobilizations of IGN, FoxSports.com, AskMen and a run of local Fox TV station sites.

Paired with CBS' recent partnership with four mobile ad networks to underwrite its mobile programs, the Fox announcement is an important endorsement of the mobile Internet in a number of ways. First, the free and ad-supported off-deck model is now directly challenging the fee-based deck approach. The Fox press release went out of its way to give AT&T and Helio the nod for selling the downloadable versions of MySpace for handsets. AT&T claims the deck-based version of the program has been the carrier's best seller since it premiered. Fox says it will continue a hybrid strategy of deck-based versions of MySpace with better handset integration alongside the free WAP version.

Puhleeze. Everyone can see where this model is headed. I like the added functionality and integration of carrier-approved downloads, too. But as free WAP versions become more robust and common, the only "hybrid" solution with any future for carriers is an ad-supported free application for the deck.

The other good implication of this deal is the prospect of enhanced targeting to mobile users. Millennial Media got the contract to sell and serve advertising into what is likely to be a massive inventory. The network of local TV station sites will let Millennial target by DMA, but the real promise is of integrating with mobile the recently announced MySpace "interest targeting" method. The social network has begun segmenting its audience by profile details like stated interests, likes and dislikes, in addition to the standard demos. "What Fox announced earlier this week with MySpace gives you a glimpse at the methodology we will carry forward," says Paul Palmieri, CEO and president, Millennial Media.

One of the strengths of extending a Web site to mobile is that it allows a publisher and network to extend an online profile into WAP targeting. More to the point, it lets publisher target content and ads to their registered mobile users without having to wait for the carriers to figure out how and when they will leverage their user data.

A year ago, all the focus was on which carriers would embrace mobile marketing and when. This year, we seem to be talking more about what media companies are offering via mobile than what the carriers offer. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the carriers will always be more important to the mobile content eco-system than ISP ever were to the Internet. The technology, control of the deck and the billing systems give carriers an intractable role. But it is increasingly clear to me that media are at the wheel now. As they invest more in off-deck ad-supported solutions that cut across and cut out carriers from the revenue stream, they will exert even more pressure on the operators to join in the model.

Just as fee-based, garden-walled AOL got caught in the Web's business models, the carriers are about to get WAPPED.