Writing about mobile gives me flashbacks to a previous life as a college professor, when I stood before classes in a tweed sports jacket. (Yeah, I actually had one or two of those, but eschewed the suede elbow patches because that would have been, you know, stereotypical.) Anyway, in this ponderous setting I got to ask open-ended questions and see brash young scholars stroke their chins and chart out responses. In retrospect I now see that most of them were just placating me (or just chuckling quietly at the jacket) with the semblance of being ponderous.
Sometimes I get that same egghead sensation when I interview mobile executives. About a year ago I started getting all professorial with the mobile industry by asking unanswerable questions that only made marketers and publishers squirm and pretend to think rather than respond.
One of those questions -- whether the mobile platform can generate its own new content brands -- is starting to get tentative answers. Brands old and new are launching onto mobile at a daily pace. Local TV stations are offering text alerts and even streaming video. Social networks and mobile video portals like MyCorner and the new BuzzWire are sprouting like kudzu. And even magazines, which had such a tough time moving their monthly brands into real-time Web properties, are unfolding on cell phones. And of course there is the classic tension over mobile search: whether the major Web brands like Yahoo and Google will prove more powerful than the carrier-branded search boxes that come through white-label providers like Medio and JumpTap.
Will mobile generate its own brands in the same way the Web birthed Google, Yahoo, MySpace, eBay and Amazon? Will the likes of MobileSidewalk, Go2, and MyWaves establish their own special relationships with mobile users? The Web brands beat the old guard because they understood and could act quickly on the unique qualities of interactivity. Does the same hold true for mobile? Do companies that built themselves from mobile rather than Web DNA enjoy an advantage here? Will the older brands take too long to implement necessary tactical shifts, and will they be burdened by the models and templates of the Web?
So many questions, with so few answers. Just like a philosophy seminar, but without the chalk dust speckling my suede loafers (yeah, I wore those, too. It was pretty bad in school.).
But in recent weeks I have been hearing some voices from the front of the room finally start to argue the point and help frame the debate that only users in the end will resolve. Not surprisingly, the arguments come in the form of competing business models and divergent visions of how mobilistas will embrace content. Frank Barbieri, an old pro from InfoSpace, Microsoft, and MSNBC, founded Transpera, which helps existing media brands move their Web video to mobile through a variety of models. Barbieri told me the other day, "our belief is that mobile is a feature, not a destination. What users really want is existing online video channels that have an integrated mobile video feature. They don't think of mobile as another relationship just because they are mobile."
It's a good and plausible point. How many brands does the consumer want to manage across TV, print, Web and now mobile? But it is also the same point Time Warner made when it erected the ill-fated Pathfinder back in the day. There are, in fact, mobile entities like Go2, which in many surveys is ranked among the top search destinations. And then there are the white-label solutions like Medio, serving Verizon and T-Mobile, that rarely get counted in these brand surveys.
Omar Tawakol, chief advertising officer, Medio, argues that mobile is as wide open as the Web once was. New platforms breed new providers, new consumer loyalties, and new ad spenders, all of which point to opportunity. And then there is MyWaves, the mobile video aggregator that just announced its one millionth member after only six months of operation. Rajeev Raman, CEO, tells me the company is signing new users up at a rate of 20,000 and more a day, many of them viral referrals. This is a medium that is inherently peer-to-peer and so is capable of growing giant beanstalks faster than Jack can drop seeds.
Stroking my own chin, I would add some wrinkles to each of these positions, however. First, is mobile really that different from the Web, to cut out or at least preempt the Web brands in the same way they outsmarted old media? Despite its unique characteristics, mobile is a digital and interactive medium and is closer to the Web than the Web was to TV or print. I am not sure how much the brand clutter issue will figure into mobile adoption of new or old brands, but it does seem to me that YaGooSoft and AOL and eBay, etc. are closer to mobile in their tech and design knowledge than old, old media were in grasping the Web. And I expect consumers will see mobile as an interactive medium, too, and will be apt to extend Web relationships here. There are also a lot of synergies between Web and phone to be leveraged by the dotcoms, like managing mobile content from a Web account and pushing content easily among existing interactive accounts. In general, I am more inclined to believe that the mobile platform is the dotcom's terrain to lose.
On the other hand, mobile is dominated by a young demo that has shown itself adept at embracing new brands that cater specifically and especially well to its needs. These are the same people who spread the word about many well-populated mobile communities that you and I never heard of. Mobile brands can also make use of the Web, especially search engines, to find those roaming audiences. MobileSidewalk, for instance, is a mobile content brand that used search as its main distribution mechanism.
The obvious and quick answer to the question of whether old Web brands or new mobile brands will dominate the phone is "both." The audience and the platform are so vast there should be room for the two to grab hold at the same time -- but with different constituencies. One can imagine even the same consumer using old familiar Web brands in one context like news, and mobile brands in other areas like social networking and music. The field is fluid and no one, not even pompous profs in suede loafers, is expected to know the answers yet. Which is good for me.
But this is one issue that really begs further discussion. So let's open up the seminar and see what you think. Write me your thoughts on the issue of creating brands on mobile, and we will organize a future a column around them.
And stop stroking your chins in mock thought. I am onto that game.