Commentary

Flirting With Obscurity

There are a number of fine and interesting mobile projects out there that barely get noticed. Quietly, slowly, several major online and offline brands are iterating their services and sites without issuing the press releases that usually pass for news in the mobile marketing eco-system. I like to bookmark and check back on these guys, because someone had better keep an eye on them -- just in case some innovation breaks out.

Comcast Mobile: So few people seem to know about this near-stealth program, but I would keep an eye on these guys. They are up to something. Their m.comcast.net site has several iterations for feature phones and smart phones, and the feature set demonstrates mobile portal ambitions. Sure, ISPs always had this fantasy that they could or should be the main gateway to the Web, and most of their online portals languished. Comcast never gave up, and its Comcast.net site gloms tons of traffic each month. They are trying to cultivate this alternative Fancast brand now. The mobile equivalent gives you local listings and lets you customize the list to your favorite channels, even search the grid and send email reminders of upcoming shows.

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Assuming that TV is the center of your life may be a stretch, but Comcast is bundling around the listings its Fandango movie ticketing service, weather, headlines, even video clips from around the Web. I am sure they are building an infrastructure that one day can be tied back to the set top box.

Rather than a reminder of an upcoming show, you should be able to schedule a DVR recording from the phone and even play it back. It seems to me they are only a few steps away from that capability now. This model plays beautifully into that larger emerging gestalt for mobile, that it is a management tool for richer media experiences we have elsewhere. Whether it is previewing email, forwarding articles to our home in-box or scheduling recordings on our mobile DVR control, the tools that win in this space help us triage content, I think.

Amazon Mobile: Everyone is abuzz today (a.k.a. responding to a press release) about QVC's new mobile text buying service, but I have been buying books from Amazon on my phone for over a year now. It ties directly into my main account, so things like current shopping carts and wish lists are accessible either on PC or phone. Much of the catalog is present, so I can use Amazon as a deep product rating and user-review site for most product categories. If I want in-depth reviews of electronics, toys, even auto products, I can get them with a quick search on Amazon's mobile site. There is a clear product image and user reviews that are nicely synopsized in a single line. This is what mobile in-store product look-ups should be. On the iPhone, Amazon Mobile is stunning, with drop-down options and reviews and a carousel gallery of featured items.

Some next steps are obvious. The site does not apply the personalization from the PC site to mobile, and that is where we need it most. Searches and default pages should be informed by my shopping patterns. Second, Amazon should be licensing this technology to retail stores in much the same way it started out licensing and running other people's e-commerce sites. I should be able to walk into a Pep Boys or GNC and have a sign tell me where to call up the mobile site for this store, complete with product information, reviews and ratings, localized deals and specials. That is the way I am learning to use Amazon Mobile across categories. The individual retailers should be mobilizing their own stores before someone else does it for them.

VCast: To Verizon's credit, the company has been relentless in gathering so much video content for its VOD service that the menu looks a lot like my cable grid. The latest round of deals put full-length episodes of some shows on the deck (parsed into four or five segments, generally), and a number of smaller cable entities like G4 now show up there. Users inclined to drill into videos could spend hours in here now.

The service desperately needs a new interface, however. With so many clips piling up, it is unwieldy to navigate. Again, shortcuts on the home page to specific channels are becoming a necessity. I know it thwarts the cross-marketing ambitions of a service like this, but giving people direct access to the content they most want in a service ultimately serves everyone better than making us drill, drill, drill.

But one of the more interesting off-shoots of VCast is another obscure mobile location, m.vcast.net. For non-VCast users, the site give you a taste of the offerings. Some of the main categories from the mobile experience are here, but I think Verizon would do well to recreate the deck here for people to test. Let the content sell the thing with mobile users so they can see what they might be missing. Verizon has amassed a ton of content for the VOD model, but the company needs to find ways to massage the interface and promote it more effectively.

I would love to see Verizon experiment with a banner ad program that pushes mobile users to this VCast site. Maybe that is what this destination site is all about. It would be interesting to see how well mobile ads and landing pages can sell mobile upgrades.

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