I should start this post with an extra disclaimer: although I work for Vodafone, this article does not represent Vodafone policy nor is it a product roadmap or public statement on behalf of Vodafone or any of its subsidiary companies. It is purely and simply my opinion. This is also marked as “beta” because mobile 2.0 is a work in progress in a constantly shifting mobile technology landscape.
Ever since Tim O’Reilly wrote his famous article on Web 2.0, everyone wants to jump on the 2.0 bandwagon. We now have “media 2.0,” “advertising 2.0,” “TV 2.0,” etc… to contend with. So why do the same and try to define mobile 2.0? The answer is that people out there are already using this term. I think there is a danger that the definition of mobile 2.0 will become hijacked either to become synonymous with “Web 2.0 applications and services brought to your phone” (which is part of the story but not the whole story) or with multimedia applications (again, only part of the story).
But if we’re going to have a mobile 2.0, I think we would do well to base the definition on the Web 2.0 mind set and thinking. With that in mind, here are some revised extensions of the O’Reilly Web 2.0 set of examples applied to mobile 2.0 (revised somewhat from my original draft definition).
SMS -> IM, mobile blogging
MMS -> Media sharing
Operator Portals -> Mobile Web and search
Operator chooses -> User chooses
Premium SMS billing -> Mobile stored value Accounts
Java Games -> Connected Applications (e.g. photo sharing, blogging)
Presence & Push-To-Talk -> VOIP applications
WAP sites -> Web sites that adapt for mobile browsers
WAP push -> RSS readers
Wallpaper -> Idle screen applications
Location services -> Google maps application
Content consumption -> Content creation (e.g. mobile blogging)
In short, mobile 2.0 leaps the mobile platform forward to where the Internet is today, and shows us how the mobile phone can become a first class citizen, or even a leading citizen, of the Web. What mobile 2.0 does not mean, at least in my mind, is more sophisticated, but still essentially closed, mobile applications and services (although these will also continue to play an important role in the mobile value chain). Openness and user choice are essential components of mobile 2.0.
Towards a Definition of Mobile 2.0
The term of “mobile 2.0″ can best be defined as the next generation of data services to mobile connected devices. To understand what this next generation is, you must look to Web 1.0. I was developing content on the Internet before there was a Web. My fiction magazine, Quanta, published its first issue in 1989. The potential to reach a world-wide audience (even if it was limited mostly to those at educational institutions at that time) was extremely compelling. Those of us who had experienced the power of the Internet immediately saw its potential, but it certainly didn’t seem like it could ever be a consumer service. The Web changed all that. By putting the already-existing concept of hypertext together with the seamless interconnectivity of the Internet, the Web brought us a compelling human interface paradigm that users could grasp. But the Web, even at that time, also made it relatively easy to create content. The ability of the Web to empower anyone to create a compelling service was its magic.
In the business landscape, consumer expectations have been molded by the Web. Consumers no longer want to be dictated to – they want choice. They want to choose which services they access. If one social networking site is no longer cool, they will switch to another. If a Web-based grocery delivery service doesn’t measure up, consumers will quickly choose another. Imagine a world in which the only data services you could interact with were ones that your cable operator chose for you. At the beginning of the 90′s, many companies were thinking along these lines. Instead of the vast choice the Web has to offer today, you could have been confined to ordering a pizza (from one of a small number of chains) through your TV. It may be difficult to remember now, but this cable TV based vision of the “information superhighway” was very real in some people’s minds. On the PC, Microsoft aggressively pursued this vision with their MSN product (then seen as a competitor to AOL). They sought to buy up the exclusive online publishing rights to newspapers in order to ensure that you could only view certain content through MSN. Quite rightly, they viewed the Web as a threat to this model. When I briefly worked for AOL in 1997, it was already clear to most people that the Web was it. However, the prevailing attitude at AOL was that the real content that mattered was on the AOL portal and that access to the Web was a feature of this portal (grudgingly provided through a badly integrated browser). Flash forward to 2006 and we find that both Microsoft and AOL have embraced the Web. Closed consumer portals on the PC are a thing of the past.
Today, with the reality of the Web pervading our lives, it’s almost unimaginable that you couldn’t sit down in front of your computer and reach out to any information source or service of your choosing at the click of a mouse – that you could live in a world of a confined set of services, chosen for us by a service provider. Could FlickR or Youtube ever have even launched on such a platform? Could Wikipedia? Craigslist? The use of RSS? Would you be able to reach across the globe to find alternative points of view from news sources around the world? Could we have seen the rise of the blog? Social bookmarking? The answer is no. None of these services or technologies could have developed in that kind of heavily controlled service landscape.
And yet that’s what we expect people to be happy with on the mobile platform. We need to remember the lessons of Web 1.0 and apply these lessons to the development of the Web and connected applications on the mobile platform. But mobile data services are changing.
This change has been made possible by a number of convergent elements. Certainly, the sophistication of devices is one of them. Even consumer mobile phones are sporting color screens, increased processing power and performance. This has been largely driven by the rise of the camera phone. At the same time, the mobile networks are getting faster and cheaper. Mobile browsers are becoming more sophisticated about rendering pages designed for large screens. Content and service providers are becoming more savvy about designing user experiences specifically for mobile users.
The result is that the Web as we know it is changing. It is becoming pocketable. The Web is coming outside.
What Place for Mobile Operators in Mobile 2.0?
Mobile network operators (or “Carriers” as they are sometimes referred to) occupy an immensely important position in the mobile industry value chain. They run the networks including authentication, connecting calls, messaging, interconnect, roaming and all the other complexities inherent in delivering seamless 24/7 uptime service. They manage retail networks and customer service. They source phones and devices from device manufacturers and resell these. They are heavily regulated.
In this world of open, unfettered access to services and software across the Internet is the role of the operator diminished to that of a “bit pipe?” Laying aside for a second the relative merits of being a bit pipe, I think the answer is “no.” By enabling innovation in an open way, operators can continue to be at the center of the data services value chain. This shift is already happening. Major operators have opened up their portals and are starting to turn them from walled gardens into jumping off points for the mobile Web. This points to the second essential role that operators can play in the mobile 2.0 value chain: discovery of content and services.
Another important way that operators can maximize their role in the mobile 2.0 world and avoid becoming solely a bit pipe is through exposure of enablers. Exposing your enablers sounds like lewd behavior, but to explain what I mean, take the example of Amazon. Amazon, through its Amazon Web Services division, exposes APIs to third party developers. Small companies and even individual developers can build their own applications on top of Amazon’s platform. This brings more money to Amazon because most of these third party applications are about browsing and mining Amazon’s catalog (and therefore eventually result in more sales for Amazon). Amazon could have taken a tightly controlled approach to their service, but by exposing APIs, they have enabled a whole ecosystem of affiliates and suppliers to grow up around them. Importantly, you don’t need to go have a meeting with an Amazon executive and sign a contract or even pay any fee to start using Amazon Web Services APIs. You simply visit a web site and accept a click-through license.
Operators have long exposed APIs to third parties and they know a great deal about enabling ecosystems to grow up around them and about delivering third party services through their ecosystem. In Europe, operators have been working with third party messaging providers to provide information, news, chat and other services via SMS. Often, these services are provided through premium-rate SMS which means users are charged a premium for use of these services.
Browsers and Connected Applications
Mobile browsers are getting better and better. Since I’ve been chairing the W3C Mobile Web Best Practices working group, I’ve seen a revolution start to take place in the mobile browsing field (which I hope has been somewhat influenced by the work of that group). The mobile Web plays a key role in mobile 2.0 by enabling innovation in the so-called long tail. Because of the mobile Web, it is possible for one person working on his own to develop with freely available and open source tools a social networking service for mobile device users, and to effectively reach a global audience with this service. Of course, we take this for granted on the PC Web, but this capability is only now becoming a reality on the mobile platform.
But it’s not all about the browser. The browser plays a crucial role because it allows access to a range of content sources, but it can also act as a delivery mechanism for connected applications. Most consumer phones today are able to download and install applications (be they Java applications or OS-specific apps for a variety of so-called “smart phone” platforms). Interestingly, it is this feature that Opera exploited when they released Opera Mini. Opera mini is a downloadable connected application that becomes the browser and therefore the conduit for more downloadable connected apps.
Finally, browser-based AJAX applications mobile widgets will play an increasingly important role in providing compelling services to users. Browser manufacturers and others are already scrambling to develop the killer widget platform.
The reason these technologies are so powerful is that they enable innovation by providing a simple framework for developing and deploying applications. Just as the Web did with PCs, the mobile Web and connected applications bring users compelling experiences and services that they can understand and start using quickly, with relatively little learning curve.
Open Applications Leverage Open Standards
Lastly, it is important to note that mobile 2.0 applications need to leverage open standards. Applications that sit on top of closed and proprietary protocols and formats are antithetical to the kind of innovation that will be key to the growth of the mobile Web. Establishing open standards around HTML, CSS and XML has greatly contributed to the growth and success of the medium and to its continued innovation. We are already seeing standards pay off big-time on the mobile platform as well in both the Java/JCP space (where we are finally realizing write-once-run-anywhere) and in the mobile Web.
Mobile 2.0 Is Here
When I traveled to Spain on business last month, I took pictures with my camera phone which were automatically uploaded to a photo sharing service as I took them using a photo upload application that I had downloaded over the mobile Web. My beautiful wife and kids were able to track my trip in pictures by checking back with the photo sharing site as I traveled and no PC was involved on my end. A downloaded mapping application on my phone allowed me to easily find my way from the city of Gigón to Bilbao, and I was able to access Wikipedia entries on cities I visited to find background information when I needed it. A downloaded mobile IM client embedded on my email device allowed me to keep in touch with colleagues and friends. Mobile 2.0 is not “the Future.” it is services that already exist all around us. These services are maturing at an amazing rate and what they are doing is effectively knitting together Web 2.0 with the mobile platform to create something new: a new class of services that leverage mobility but are as easy to use and ubiquitous as the Web is today. These services point the way forward for the mobile data industry.