Mobile Reshapes the Future

mobile future
Don’t be embarrassed. Considering the giant leap in personal technology we’ve experienced in our lifetime — raise your hand if you remember buying an extra-long cord so you could talk on the phone in the other room — we’re pretty hyped about the state of things. That phone in your pocket? The one that set you back a day’s pay? That thing has more computing power than nasa did in 1969, the year man landed on the moon. It has more editing and filming capability than Orson Welles had when he made “Citizen Kane.” So what if you mainly use your phone to check the time, find directions, or text your vote to “Dancing with the Stars?” The fact that we use such revolutionary technology to perform everyday tasks is what makes it so mind-blowing.

So when we talk about the future of media, it’s no wonder the conversation centers largely on mobile devices. As “phones” become more powerful (and seriously, when can we stop calling them that? Is making calls not the least impressive thing that they do?), they will become the conduit through which we live our lives. Reading the news, connecting with friends, finding our way, playing games — these are tasks they’ve already commandeered. So why should they not control our homes, plan our vacations, shop(in-store, not just online) and fall in love?

“Ten or 15 years from now, literally everything is going to be controlled by your phone,” says Ly Tran, digital marketing director at Proof Advertising. “It’s where we’ll get all our information, communicate and connect. They’re the driver of the future.”

How central will our mobile devices be to our daily lives in 10 years? They will replace TV remote controls, says Tran. And let’s be honest — it doesn’t get much more critical than that.

Despite all the talk of watching movies on your mobile device, Tran points out that no one seems that interested. Instead, the increasing availability of on-demand media means “you will use your mobile device to choose what you want to watch on your TV on your way home,” she says, “and when you get home, you will use your phone as your remote control.” The best part: because the content will be so personalized, “there will be no fighting over the remote control.” (Fighting over who gets to use the big TV, however, may be eternal.)

The exciting news for advertisers? One of the most frequently handled devices in the house, previously incapable of carrying ads, will become a channel for the most personalized kinds of messages. Just imagine the ads you can send to a remote control that knows not just what its owner is watching, but what he or she likes to watch in general.

Your phone will also tell you when it’s time buy milk (if, in fact, we still drink milk in the future).

“Your milk carton will tell your refrigerator that your milk is about to expire,” says Tina Unterlaender, director of mobile at AKQA. “And your fridge will send a message to your phone.”

This exciting sponsorship opportunity (“Your milk is about to expire. Scan this message for 10 percent off a gallon of Farmland.”) isn’t actually that far in the future. Several labs, including M.I.T. and its Counter Intelligence program, have made prototypes of refrigerators that can either tell you when your milk is going bad or sense that you’re low on eggs. Such a refrigerator was even featured at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past year. Like the picture phone (better known today as Skype), this new product may take a while to catch on with the public. And the integration of the smartphone may be what makes the difference.

Mobile devices have already revolutionized shopping. Last year, four out of five U.S. smartphone owners used their devices to help with shopping, according to Google/Ipsos. Of those people, 76 percent purchased in store; 59 percent purchased on their PCs; and 35 percent made their purchases on their smartphones. As mobile commerce becomes easier and more secure, expect that last number to rise considerably.

Such statistics make it tempting to predict the death of brick-and-mortar retail. But rather than cede their business, retailers like Best Buy will be forced to embrace mobile as part of the in-store experience, says Mark Silber, executive creative director of WPP mobile agency Joule.

The way retail works now, “you go into Best Buy to check out a TV set and then order it on Amazon,” says Silber. “If Best Buy is interested in surviving, they’re going to have to do something to the in-store experience.”

Luckily, a consumer carrying his mobile device, particularly as such devices become more and more integrated with social media, will also be carrying a treasure trove of personal information about his preferences and shopping history. Grocery stores are already experimenting with discounting  certain items to certain customer, based on information contained in loyalty cards, according to an August story in The New York Times.

“Any real-world business — whether you’re retail, hospitality, any business — will have to create an enhanced experience by giving consumers something, even if it’s as pedestrian as coupons, when they walk in the door,” says Silber. “Why wouldn’t the grocery store have a tailored set of offers for me when I walk in, built around products that the store knows I like to buy?”

Bring augmented reality into the picture, says Tran, and things get really interesting.  Imagine going on a vacation, or even just being stuck in an unfamiliar city, and finding you have a personalized, 3-D, interactive travel guide in your pocket.

“All the info that’s in these old-school travel books should all be on the phone,” says Tran. For example, a first-time visitor to Hawaii would be able to look through the camera on her phone or tablet and see, superimposed on the street in front of her, comments and preferences about locations that her friends have already been to. “You should be able to take out your phone and look around your world to see where’s the best restaurant, where’s your friends’ favorite hotel,” she says. “The technology for that is available today.”

All this mobile dependence will also mean freedom from more earth-bound devices. By 2014, cell phone usage will eclipse time spent with laptop and desktop computers, according to a recent study from Microsoft Tag. What that means for laptops is not obsolescence, but certainly a less critical role in our day-to-day activities and in marketers’ attempts to reach consumers.

“We already have less and less reason to actually use a PC as often as we did a few years ago,” says Silber. “I wouldn’t call it death, more of a reincarnation.”

As people become more mobile, advertisers are going to have to think more fluidly. “They have to think in terms of a day-long consumer journey that involves what consumers are doing on their way to work, everything they’re seeing along the way, messages on a coffee cup, reaching people in whatever medium makes the most sense at a given part in the day,” he says. The laptop will continue to be a part of that day, Silber believes, but only a part.

With the decline of the laptop also comes a decrease in email use. For years, researchers have noted the younger generation’s preference for texting over email: email use fell by 6 percent in 2011, with usage for 12- to 17-year-olds plunging by 24 percent, according to comScore — and as larger computers begin playing second-fiddle to mobile devices, we can expect this trend to continue.

At first, this may sound like bad news for marketers, because consumers have long proved more receptive to outreach via email than they are to texts (though research suggests they are decreasingly interested in interacting via email, too). “Texting is a very personal communication,” says Tran, “so a lot of consumers are still hesitant to receive texts from brands.”

But sometimes evolution forces us to change for the better. As mobile devices become central, and are increasingly integrated with social media, marketers will come to recognize a certain reality: social — and not SMS or email — is where consumers want to interact with corporations.

“If we can replace email with Facebook or Twitter, we can stop wasting time trying to get email addresses” of consumers who don’t necessarily want to hear from brands,” says Tran. “If we want to collect leads, we can do it all on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest.”

Indeed, over the next five to 10 years, we should expect social sites like Facebook and Twitter to worm their way into more facets of our daily lives. With 900 million members and counting, Facebook has plans to integrate itself with our lives even earlier — and, believe it or not, longer — than it does now. Forget what you heard about its flagging stock price.

In June, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was working on parental controls that would allow children 13 and younger to become members. “Mechanisms being tested include connecting children’s accounts to their parents’ and controls that would allow parents to decide whom their kids can ‘friend’ and what applications they can use,” the article read.

Which is not to say that 10-year-olds haven’t been using Facebook all along. “I mean, really: How many under-13-year-olds do you know who have a Facebook page?” asks Marian Salzman, CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR. “And all they had to do was claim that they were 14 — or 87.” Still, she says, the legitimization of pre-teens in the social media space “begs the question: How young is too young?”

“Will the new technology and parental controls help to dissuade online hatred?” asks Salzman, referring to the seemingly endless stream of stories about youngsters — and even adults — using social media to harass kids online. “What if parents aren’t engaged enough once their tween initially sets up the account — will bullying run even more rampant?”

On the other end of the life spectrum, expect Facebook and other social media sites to become key players in your death, so to speak.

“Nineteen thousand Facebookers die every day,” says Salzman, “and now that Facebook has launched Timeline, which begins at birth, there’s really only one logical way for it to end, isn’t there?”

Almost from the beginning Facebook has struggled with the question of what to do with members’ profiles after they die. Following some initial missteps — taking down profiles against family wishes, or suddenly deleting pages that had become de facto memorials — Facebook arrived at a reasonable solution. Today, family members can request that the pages of their deceased loved ones either be removed or placed into permanent memorial status.

By why stop there? “If I Die” is a new Facebook app that lets people record a special message to their friends that will only be played after they die. In the U.K., Dead Social lets individuals schedule secret messages that, after the user dies, are broadcast across various media channels. The issue has become so serious that the U.S. government now advises Americans to write a “social media will.”

“If you are active online, you should consider creating a statement of how you would like your online identity to be handled,” advises on its “Writing a Will” page. “You should appoint someone you trust as an online executor. This person will be responsible for the closure of your email addresses, social media profiles and blogs after you are deceased.”

How will marketers fit into the social media afterlife? Even asking the question seems a bit tacky. At least for now. But if the last 20 years of media evolution have taught us anything, it’s that people always make room in their lives for technology and media. And if you offer them a free, ad-supported option, nine times out of 10 they prefer it to paying. So who knows how this particular scenario will play out? But one thing is sure: over the next decade, a greater portion of our lives will be spent interacting with media and technology. And where those things exist, advertising is never far behind.

“Whatever your opinions on our Internet afterlife,” says Salzman, “you must admit one thing: this is anything but a dying market.”

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