If Mobile Is So 'Personal,' Then Why Can't I Control It?

The two great online phenomena of the past two years, MySpace and YouTube, both flourished in large part because of their sheer simplicity. They lowered the bar so low for building a personal page or uploading and sharing videos that anyone with even the slightest urge to create content had an open venue.

Arguably, MySpace and YouTube are not pretty sites. Most of the profile pages have the design sense of a NASCAR racer or a teenager’s room, and for most of their users that is just fine. My own 15-year-old daughter is a MySpace fanatic, and she just ignores all of the fancier Web-based UGC projects I test on her. She is happy with MySpace because it is “so easy.” And as with eBay before them, MySpace and YouTube are butt-ugly powerhouses that have greased the gears of personal and small business. Garage bands and specialty stores anywhere now can ride that long tail.

While all the big guns of mobile, digital and media make their “game-changing” announcements at CTIA this week, I am more interested in some of the tools I have been finding lately that empower users to make and manage their mobile experiences.

There has been a lot of griping about the mobile interface in the wake of the Apple iPhone announcement, for instance. One radical answer I have seen to the clutter and irrelevance of the deck is Widsets, a widget-based approach to connecting to the Web. You manage this downloadable Java app from the Web by dragging and dropping widgets for eBay, branded news feeds, Wikipedia, and FlickR onto the Web interface so they show up on your phone screen. You configure each widget to access your personal data like a GMail account or a specific RSS feed. In fact, it really is just an attractive front end for a mobile RSS reader, but it has the potential for much more. I get feeds to comic strips here, and there are some games like a tile moving puzzle and Sudoku. On the phone itself, these widgets float in space, so you scroll over any one of them to bring it to the foreground. Imagine if the phone deck interface were fully customized and as simple or as complex as a user wanted? Wouldn’t that be, well, what a personal media device should be?

For marketers, the cool part of Widsets is an online design tool that can make a branded widget in about three seconds. In fact, the odds are that some enterprising fan has already made a mobile widget for most of the media brands. Major news and entertainment sites are already available here, but it looks as if fans, not the companies themselves, made them. Once you create a Widset widget, you can promote it on your site by pasting code for a button that pushes users over to the Widsets app.

In the broad universe of mobile apps and business models, Widsets is a small experiment that is unlikely to become a major media player. It is, however, an enticing vision of what the mobile deck could be if carriers opened their minds to the possibilities of a truly customizable interface. Even if this ether of floating widgets were just the front end to the content portion of a deck, it would be a vast improvement over what we have from any carrier now. First, it lowers the personalization bar so low that almost anyone with a Web connection could be enticed to manage his or her decks from a Web site. Personally, I have always believed that the Internet will serve as a back-end management system for the media we prefer to experience on our TVs, via TiVo or game consoles, on handsets and iPods than on the desktop itself.

Carriers will complain that opening the deck to such radical customization undercuts their ability to merchandise content and leverage all those sweetheart co-marketing deals they so love. But doesn’t an online media management system open up new possibilities for the carriers, too? If Verizon or Sprint or Cingular have tens of millions of mobile data users managing their media on the Web, doesn’t that give them an incredible eyeball flow to monetize off the deck? I hear that Google and Yahoo have a made nice little businesses here. 

For media companies and marketers, tying mobile to the Web is precisely the direct-to-consumer link they want. Imagine if mobile slipped into the digital content eco-system as effectively as has Digg or RSS? What if CNN or CBS or Nike or Electronic Arts had mobile widget buttons on their Web sites that sent a feed, feature or game directly to your Web/mobile interface for placement on your deck?

Imaginative labs like Widsets remind us just how unimaginative U.S. carriers have been in their deck designs. I have seen a number of companies like ActionEngine and Adobe make a play for the deck with more attractive and flexible designs, but the carriers’ need for uniformity and control continues to win out. Mobile phones are personal only insofar as they sit in individual pockets and they make person-to-person calls. Ironically, as a media platform, they are woefully impersonal, with standardized, concrete interfaces that refuse to let the content we like float to the surface. Does it really matter if mobile clips of the insufferable Katie Couric are available “on demand” from my handset if I have to drill through a deck menu, wait for VCast to load and then drill four or five clicks into the CBS well? Who is on whose leash here?

See? This is how crotchety I get when I have had it my own way for a while and then had to return control to the mobile politburo. And this is the danger carriers face in a mediaverse that in all other respects is finding ways to give users control over experiences. Here is the painful irony that continues to retard the appeal and the progress of mobile data. The newest, most personal media device is really the last bastion of the mass-media dinosaurs.

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