Content And Convenience

A new survey of 15,000 worldwide mobile users from the CMO Council tells us that consumers everywhere are getting more than a little pissed about their over-powered and under-utilized phones. "Feature fatigue" is setting in. The No. 1 complaint among subscribers is that their handsets have too many functions they just don't understand. Along with that gripe is a low level of satisfaction with their retail chain, which is not knowledgeable or instructive enough about the technology.

The CMO study also goes on to point out that users in developing nations have been much faster to embrace a wider range of data services and even phone personalization than U.S. users. There are a lot of speculative arguments about the differences between the U.S. and non-U.S. mobile markets. One theory goes like this: PC penetration, the ubiquity of TV screens and other feeds of information and entertainment in techno-America simply make us less dependent on that "third screen" of media than other cultures. Another take involves our relative lack of opportunity for mobile data use, since our car culture makes for a much different commuting ritual than most other societies where mass transit dominates. We just don't have those moderate stretches of time it takes to focus on mobile TV, Internet or games.

Mobile developers tend to dismiss a lot of these cultural theories in favor of standard technological hubris: 3G network rollouts and greater penetration of tricked-out phones will drive more and more varied data usage in the U.S., they argue. It is inevitable that we will turn Japanese (or Italian, for that matter) any day now.

I am more inclined to take a hybrid view of how emerging platforms take hold in the U.S. I think the success of the iPod is a good example of a device, an interface, and a business model that streamlined the technical innovation of digital downloads in just the right way. As with mobile data, downloadable, portable music's convenience and efficiency were obvious for those of us who struggled with the first generations of kludgy MP3 players. But finding, harvesting and transferring MP3s to a Diamond Rio or worse, a 128MB flash player, was a barrier just high enough to keep most people away.

Likewise with phones, drilling for applications and WAP favorites, passing photos to one another and downloading music is just on the other side of the tipping point of convenience. The content is not that good to induce us to learn new habits -- and the alternative, easier channels to the same information are just not that far away.

I think that mobile content would do well to get over itself. Let's face it; having in-hand my headlines, email, games, MySpace, etc. just is not that important. Mobile data is convenient, which is different from important. Important is connecting with family and friends, which is why we learned to navigate phone interfaces to begin with, and why low-tech SMS is the mobile cash cow that mobile TV can only dream of becoming.

It seems to me that once we stop depending on the irresistibility of our media, we can start focusing more on the real barrier to entry for mobile content -- convenience. I have seen some cool ideas for several vendors in recent weeks that aim at that rough spot in the mobile experience.

We need a seamless, solution for image-sharing and posting that is baked into the operating system of a phone. I should be able to point my phone cam, shoot and have a pre-selected menu of sending options at hand. The images can show up automatically in my email in my Flickr account, at MySpace, at my blog. I should not have to drill my contact list or open separate image-sharing apps to get the image to the direct destination.

Recently I played with a technology from Ontela described as a kind of QPass for images. The carrier integrates the company's image-swapping technology into the network, but Ontela manages the business relationships and image passalongs to all the destinations like Flickr or Myspace. I don't know whether this is a good solution for carriers, but as a consumer I like the idea of automating the back end of the process. All the images I took on the demo phone I used simply showed up in my desktop email when I pressed one option button within my phone cam interface.

Mobile music is another kludge that needs a usability rewrite. While the synch function of the iPod still has its problems, it creates the feeling that my digital audio library is ever-present, and that individual devices like desktop and portable player are simply dipping into it. That idea of a media flow is where we need to head. MSpot showed me an interesting "remix" app that responds to the upcoming Apple iPhone by giving mobile users direct access to their own media libraries. To oversimplify, the system uses a desktop memory resident app on the PC so a mobile app can access the library. If you have available storage on your phone, Remix lets you pick a tune and stream it as it downloads to the phone. This is moving in the right direction of liquid media -- content that your PC, TV, game console, MP3 player and phone can access at will.

I firmly believe that devices need to become more invisible and content needs to become much less device-dependent. Once we get past the whiz-bang of new technologies, a phone, a game console or a set top box should be focused on bringing our content to us. Not us to it.

Speaking of which, the final big choke point for mobile content is, in fact, the drill-down. The old Internet design principle used to be that with every click you put between users and their goal, you lose half your audience. Apply that principle to mobile phones and we should regard ourselves lucky that anyone accesses WAP at all. Content (my content) needs to bubble to the top. Last week Mobile Posse showed me what it calls the first "top level" ad solution, which actually pushes ads and content to the top of the phone deck while it is idle. A small Midwestern carrier is starting a trial this week and offering subscribers a discount from their wireless bill in exchange for getting offers when they flip their phone. I have no idea whether users will accept that model, but I do know this technology is most attractive to me as a content delivery vehicle. You can specify the content you want to have at hand when you flip open your phone.

That schemes like these that make content genuinely convenient are only now in the pitch stage speaks volumes about the state of mobile content. For U.S. users, at least, the phone as a media device remains nice-to-have, and that is not reason enough to learn new habits and drill for data. When the delivery vehicle finally becomes effortless, then the content doesn't need to be must-have. It just becomes a part of the environment we expect. The design goal for mobile should not be impressing us with new features and whiz-bang capabilities. If anything we should be working harder to make the technology invisible.

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