Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Problems with Mobile web

My affair with mobile web application domain is around 7 year old now. I was a little late adopter of a fixed line telephone as our village was not having a phone line. when I get in to college I fell in love with wireless networking .when I was asked to deliver seminar as part of my course curriculum I choose to give a presentation on “WAP: A Tool To Unwire Internet “ . Since that day I am constantly monitoring this domain from the view point of a amused observer, tech enthusiast, user and since last six month or so as an aspiring entrepreneur willing to get a slice of some action and make a small fortune in process.

Jokes apart I honestly believe that Mobile Web domain is the next hot thing in Hi Tech . Forthcoming years will see a hell lot of action in this space. Specially for a country like India where cost of access device (Read PC) is still a bit too high for most of the people . Mobile phone offer a very affordable alternate for internet access.

But something is missing. Even though we have all the tools and conditions to create a mobile web ecosystem. Still we haven’t got the critical mass .this industry has not really reached at a Tipping Point. atleast not yet .

Why?? What is the Problem?

My One Line Answer: “Our Approach to Problem is the Real Problem”

In this post I intend to draft an anatomy of our wrong approach to mobile web application development.

PC Hangover

What would you call a device that has a screen, a keyboard, storage for personal information such as contacts, email, documents, the ability to play audio and video files, some games, a spreadsheet program, and a communications capability?
Sound like a personal computer? How about "mobile phone" ?

Philip Greenspun In "Mobile Phone As Home Computer"

“Think about it... someday there'll be some newbie. He'll register a domain, throw up a bunch of mobile web pages and then someone will hit the site from their PC and get an error... "Oops! I totally forgot about the PC!"
Will it happen? Hmmm. Probably not, right, since that newbie will probably be making the web pages from his or her computer, so they'll obviously try the site from their PC.
Mobile Web Pages will be the norm when you can create a complete mobile website from your phone without help from a computer. It's like the web equivalent of a OS bootstrapping. Until you can do everything from creation to consuming from your mobile, there'll always be a PC in the way, and thus the mindset won't change (at least for me). “

Russell Beattie In Mobile Webpage Thoughts

When we think of computing we think of PC , when we think of internet we think of PC as the default device . All our design heuristic are derived from PC World & developing Apps for mobile is perceived as equivalent to Picking up a desktop application and optimizing it for low screen size, low processing power and less onboard memory . And eureka !!! what you have got is a browsing experience which sucks

Both Mobile and Desktop are tow different devices which are used in different manner, the parameter of user expectation are different. So making a rehash of desktop application and trying to push it down the throat of end user will not help.

People(read :We the Geeks) are trying to use mobile web as a glue to fix when desktop web access is broken because of mobility limitation of desktop. IMHO this is the reason why mobile web has not been able to take a life of its own . App Designers /Architects believe that mobile browsing is a way to patch the connectivity glitch , its not a mainstream internet access medium. In spite of the huge success of DoCoMo’s Mobile Data Application in Japan most of the companies (Telcos, OEM, Content Provider ) don’t look at it as a mainstream access device which is not doing justice to the potential it holds .

My Two Cents Advice: Stop looking at mobile web access as a secondary/Ad hoc browsing solution and start building Apps with mobile paradigm in their DNA. It’s not an exercise in optimization, its something we need to do from the scratch.

Generation Gap

Most of the Decision making guys in Telco & OEM are the in Late Forties and they are totally out of sync with the expectation and realities of Young-Hip-and Upwardly mobile user base of Their product . I talked to a Senior Guy of VAS in Leading Telco and he said “Given the Rock Bottom Call Rates Here in India I think SMS is a sheer waste of Time “

In the same Telco I talked to a Sr. Manager (Marketing) {Ex-HLL } and asked him Where/When do you think your customer is most likely to use your VAS Services like GPRS etc . He was at a loss but then said “at Barista/Coffee Day I guess” . He may have a point but one reason why mobile browsing picked up in Japan (and UK to some extent ) and not in USA is that people commute using Public Transport (London Tube & other Train ,BUS .Tram Etc) in Japan and UK but American prefer to Drive their way to work . Now I think its kind of hard to drive and browse simultaneously. People in Telco seems to be totally clueless about it . A classic case of Marketing Myopia.

Now I know and you know the size of market SMS/Mobile VAS represent .if I am launching an Innovative SMS based service I need to fight this Guy in his Late Forties, based on my experience as a sales man I can safely say that biggest difficulty in concept selling is to convince a guy whose generation haven’t “lived” with the problem which you are solving

(As a matter of fact I can’t convince my DAD that its worthy to spend 500 bucks on a pizza. He just won’t listen to me and dismiss my arguments in amusement. ).

Telco might be very swift in adapting to the technology in Equipment .we skipped one phase of Telecom Equipment evolution and moved straight to High Bandwidth OFC Networks. But our business logic is still (mostly) a rehash of AT&T syndrome and we all know that at one point of time AT&T had more Lawyers than Engineers.

Some external Events like SMS Response to “Indian Idol” may give a jolt to these folks once in a while and they may realize the size of opportunity but they are totally incapable of doing it in a proactive manner.

My Two cents Advice: Voice is Dead (Remember the Line in a Cell phone Commercial “…..And You Can Also Talk”). Stop Idealizing AT&T and look at NTT DoCoMo and try to do in India what they have done in Japan . That’s where the future is.

Walled Gardens & Traffic Policemen:

“Most big companies have some kind of turf to protect, and this tends to warp their development decisions. For example, Web-based applications are hot now, but within Microsoft there must be a lot of ambivalence about them, because the very idea of Web-based software threatens the desktop. So any Web-based application that Microsoft ends up with, will probably, like Hotmail, be something developed outside the company.”

Paul Graham In Hiring Is Obsolete

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves? )

:Juvenal, Satires, Roman poet & satirist (55 AD - 127 AD)

This in my opinion is the most damaging aspect of mobile web . Because it has got something to do with an external dependency. From Telco’s to OEMs , From Regulatory bodies to VCs everyone is somewhat biased toward the Big Companies and no body actually give a damn to entrepreneurs .

Things are different in Traditional web application space . If you come up with a good application & execute properly than you have a fair chance to be successful. Because nobody can stop your customer to come to you and consume your services. There is very little external dependency, not for the most part.

But here in mobile web where Pipes are monitored and controlled by the Big Brother (READ: TELCO) you are literally at the mercy of the whims of Telco. The moment you are profitable the Telco mafia knock at your doors for extortion. Even Google’s Of World are not immune from this.

Conflict over revenue sharing between Content providers and Distributors (Telcos ) is another area where there is a ugly exploitation is rampant . In Japan most of the time content provider get as high as 80% of the revenue . here in India the providers cut is 30% at the most . Why ??

Telco says that this is because most of the content is not available in India are very much a commodity. Ringtone, Wallpaper, screensaver etc so it makes sense for them to squeeze it because there Rival Telco can easily copy it next time. Point taken .

We the entrepreneurs are to blame for this. There are very few genuinely New Application in this space in India . One of My Friend who commute through DTC had a tough time finding out the availability to Bus on a various routes . She asked me can’t she SMS her location & destination and some application send her the schedule and Bus number of the next DTC bus available. Truth is it can be done .very easily she only need to send her destination as Telco knows her location anyway and DTC Schedule is more or less stable . So why don’t we have a service like that yet??


1) the skeptic Telco guys will say that folks will prefer to ask bystanders than SMS. (Alright ADD Inter-state Traffic and Railway schedule to it).

2) We are busy making ring tone L

Cell Phone OEMs are another “Partner in Crime“here. After more than a decade of cell phone usage there is no standardization in the market .we are not unanimously agreed even to the battery and charger format. Which should be obvious as charger is a non strategic thing .

Point is that Its not that standards are half baked or they are evolving . the reason is that proprietary implementation is a way to hold the customer in a Mousetrap .but on the flip side in the absence of a unified standard developers are always confused about how to develop an application to have maximum foot print.

My Two Cents: I can’t say anything which they don’t know already . They seems to know the PC History and are aware of the benefits of standardization but it seems that they are afraid of end up being IBM.

This is my take on some of the problems which are associated with Mobile web wonderland. I wanted to write about the VC side of story also but refrained from doing so because I will be looking for the funding soon .

As always your comment and feedbacks are welcome and awaited


Zelva Media Library said...

aiyah..always like that one

Razib Ahmed said...

Yes, I agree with that people who are related with mobile business does not consider mobile to be an alternative of computer. Sure a personal computer can do a lot of thing but the point that idea was also seemed to be unthinkable in 1930s or 1940s where computer's processing system required a big room.

Anonymous said...

Well Prashant it’s just an imaginary posting and nothing to do with reality. You know you cannot use needle in place of sword and neither needle is capable of doing that kind of damage what sword can do.
Secondly you talk about the PC cost. Well my dear friend from normal mobile you cannot use those functionality what are you dreaming of and the cost of good mobile is same as new PC.

You know very well how many people use the black berry and how long their replies are. you can imagine the comfort level of masses. It’s just work as a supporting system and nothing else forgets about development work on mobile. Don’t tell me that people’s behavior will change coz it takes us years to come on this age.

Don’t forget the cost involved in whole development and I am more then 100% sure no body going to pay that from their own pocket. After all it’s all about money honey………

I hope you will make you dream applications in realistic manner don’t get lost ……..


Well you seems to have miss the point here far as problem of using mobile is concerned i disagree with you we are not talking about using mobile as a FAT processor what we are concerned with is using mobile as an access device for browsing .like a A Tap at the end of the pipe . Million's of Subscriber of NTT DoCoMo in japan use there devices in that way . isn't that a poof of concept ?

there is some grain of truth in your argument that folks reply in snippets while using Blackberry . The problem here is two fold . one Blackberry never positioned itself as anything other than a "Research In Motion " perhaps to avoid any conflict with MS Exchange ( your legacy :-) ) so they never pushed the initiative to make it a full fledged thing .
the main appeal of Blackberry is to serious business user not to the SMS (Texting for American ) generation. and right now here in India its that bracket which is driving the mobile business.

and i know few folks in Germany are developing a wafer thin,feather weight,folding keyboard which can be plugged in to the handheld (BlackBerry ,Treo ,palm etc )and can be used a standard QWERTY keyboard to be used as a accessory with these devices . so even Tech limitation is not there.

i somewhat agree to you that a smart phone cost as much as a good home computer but that is partly due to the poor synergies bi tween Telco and OEM and lack of Economy of Scale .

Telco here can easily bundle these devices with there 2-3 year subscription and give device for free . thus they will achieve a customer lock-in for that period of time . Reliance have done it with some success and i am sure other will follow soon .The moment we get to a Tipping Point there will be enough buyer for it that price can be profitably amortized .
you have seen it happening with phone with Camera now they are just a commodity . so wait fora few years and all this High End phones will be commodity too .

thanks for the concern about viability of my application .i really appreciate . its scary but i love the thrill of it .keep watching this space to know about the progress of my project .

labsji said...

Very interesting points Prashant.
The really serious innovations in mobile web application needs TELCO's cooperation. As illustrated by your simple DTC schedule app.

Startups will get VC funded if there is opportunity to grow and exit. Here there are too many ifs and buts even in getting off the ground.

TELCOs need a kick in the rss. Widespread WiFi deployment + availability of cheap wifi devices that can double as phones will do the trick.

A payment infrastructure that bypasses the phone billing/TELCO will be a good enabler to create more startup action.