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5 mobile megatrends (and how to prepare)

Josh Lovison
5 mobile megatrends (and how to prepare) Josh Lovison

A revolution is coming. It's sneaking up on us much faster than most of the country realizes. No, I'm not talking about anything political -- I'm talking about mobile phones.

We've seen the initial rumblings of change with the iPhone over the past few years. In a recent comScore survey, a little more than 40 percent of iPhone owners reported browsing the web more often on their phones than their PCs. Apple itself has gone from a luxury computer company to a self-proclaimed "mobile devices company," as noted by both COO Tim Cook and Steve Jobs himself. The smartphone has replicated and to some extent replaced many of our day-to-day PC tasks. 

At the same time, we've seen a trend toward smaller and more portable devices in computing. At one time, computer purchases were tied to Moore's law, with prospective buyers purchasing a new desktop every two to three years as speeds doubled. But a few years ago, the computing requirements ceased to double along with the capabilities, and suddenly it was the decrease in size that fueled purchases. The market for a primary computing device went from desktops to laptops to toying with netbooks and, most recently, tablets.

These two trends are going to collide rather forcefully in the U.S., where the mobile phone market has a forced acceleration in technology adoption. Because carriers in the U.S. are able to charge high prices for monthly service by hampering a competitive marketplace through two-year contract lock-ins, our mobile phone adoption is ahead of the rest of the world. Every two years, carriers nearly force consumers to replace their handset and heavily subsidize the cost of those handsets to do so. As a result, roughly 60 percent of U.S. mobile phone subscribers have a phone less than 12 months old, and the entire marketplace is transformed in a two-year cycle. No other technology market evolves this rapidly.

In two years' time, mobile phones will resemble phones about as much as a laptop installed with Skype would today. They will be running on 4G networks, which are data-only networks with no separate voice channel. The cloud will have evolved to a point where the tasks currently requiring a dedicated computer can be performed from a pocket-sized device. The world as we know it will be radically different. But fear not -- here are five basic ways to survive the coming revolution.

Form follows function, but as the iPad has shown, function can follow form too. The internals of the iPhone 4 and the iPad are near identical. Both devices run iOS 4.0. And yet, despite the innumerable similarities, that singular point of difference -- the size of the touch screen -- provides two very different experiences.

There are rumors that Apple is planning to launch a followup to the Apple TV with a device running iOS for the living room. Google has already announced a derivative of the Android platform for the living room called Google TV, which will be sold as a separate device as well as built into upcoming Sony TVs.

Is a TV mobile? Perhaps one day we will just roll up an OLED TV screen and carry it around like a poster, but I (and my back) would rather not treat my current TV as a mobile device. And yet, applications that will run on my mobile device will be running on my Android or iOS living room device. Conversely, I watch TV content on the go through Netflix instant streaming and Hulu Plus on my phone.

Over the next 18 months, the "mobile" experience is going to expand its territory from tablets (which it just invaded) to TVs. This is going to require a seamless experience regardless of screen size, as those screens will vary from 3.5 inches to 52.

Marketers are going to need to start adapting to this change today before they are left behind when the transition begins. Stop thinking about screen sizes as separate experiences that won't intersect. Any marketer developing an app or mobile-formatted website today should also design the tablet and TV versions of that app or website. This really isn't as onerous as it sounds. Just develop a version that will work in both portrait and landscape mode (a good practice for mobile anyway), and make sure the masters for all the graphics render at 1080p resolutions. Save the brainstorming for user experience differences until the tablet or TV markets break 10 million units.

Cool new smartphones might catch most of the news coverage, but the pending upgrades to the wireless networks are really going to take the nation on a wild ride. 4G cometh, and with it, a whole new mobile experience.

We recently saw the release of the first 4G smartphone with the aptly named EVO 4G on Sprint's WiMax network. This Android handset sees speeds roughly twice those of 3G in WiMax-covered areas. However, to paraphrase Al Jolson, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Verizon is rumored to be planning to launch its 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) network on Nov. 15 in select cities. While initially this network will only be accessed by laptop cards, early 2011 will bring a slew of smartphone releases on the network.

While the speeds have yet to be announced, the network Verizion is building is capable of delivering speeds to consumers on par with the high-speed cable broadband that many homes have today. The network is by default a data network, with no separate channel for voice, meaning (a) consumers still buying feature phones today to avoid data plan charges shouldn't need to avoid smartphones much longer, and (b) the carrier business model is going to be undergoing some major changes.

Initially, devices will be "dual band" and use 3G for voice and 4G for data, but as 2011 turns to 2012, we should expect to see carriers start offering "voiceless" data plans. In order to retain their profits with this new pricing structure, we will likely see much more of the tiered or consumption-based (pay for what you use) data plan billing from carriers moving forward. How the minutiae of these plans work out will have major implications for media, cloud services, and advertising on wireless networks (i.e., will consumers really want to watch a video on product features when they are paying for each MB?). However, until things solidify, it really isn't worth worrying about.

In the meantime, the 4G upgrades are something to be excited about, not fearful of. At its most basic, the 4G promise is Wi-Fi performance everywhere. High-quality live video streams, premium content, cloud-based services, lightning-fast page loads -- all of these things will be available on the go or in retail environments, not just at home or in Starbucks. Smart marketers will begin to ramp up the richness of content in 2011 for location-based offerings in areas supporting 4G coverage.

The ironically named "feature" phone is dying. Start digging the grave today. While the phones do have scale, the key usage indicators pale compared to smartphones such as Blackberry devices, and are just terrible in comparison with Android or iOS devices.

It is often difficult to integrate mobile marketing that has been dumbed down to work with feature phones into the broader marcom plan, whereas an app or smartphone-formatted microsite can be a cornerstone of the brand experience. As an example, there's a good chance a brand's email blast will be read on a smartphone, providing the opportunity to link out to a site that uses HTML5 elements to pull location information and serve up contextual messaging. The feature phone version would be a 140-character micro-newsletter designed specifically for phones as a separate effort and requiring a double opt-in from consumers before receiving it.

The key thing holding the smartphone market back is the additional monthly charges for data, but now that both AT&T and Verizon have introduced tiered pricing for data use, this becomes less of a barrier. A great example of the shift has been the termination of the Sidekick phone, and the failure of its spiritual successor, the KIN. Expect smartphone adoption to continue to rise dramatically through the coming two-year cycle.

Ultimately, the decision brands are faced with today is spending time and energy to support an increasingly obsolete, high-yield one-off versus a quickly growing integrated media channel. In my opinion, the former is optional and in some cases ill advised, but the latter is an absolute necessity.

YouTube's recently launched HTML5 mobile site

It is exhausting to try to worry about building an app for the iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and the handful of Palm Pre users out there. Well, HTML5 can help.

Totally redefining the term "web app," HTML5 allows a web page to act in many ways as if it were a native application running on the phone. Pull location information, store data, play video, trigger system events -- all of these things are possible with HTML5.

Because iOS, Android, the upcoming Blackberry 6, and Palm's WebOS all use the WebKit browser backend, by the end of this year, every new smartphone being sold with the exception of Windows Mobile phones (which will likely follow suit) will be HTML5 compatible. This promise of ubiquity across devices is one major attraction of the technology.

There are also major implications for CPC display advertising with HTML5. Suddenly that banner is much more powerful when it can click instantly into a full-fledged application, ready to go. YouTube just redesigned its m.youtube.com site for the iOS and Android devices to provide a great HTML5 experience, and when iPhones first visit it, they are immediately asked if they would like to create a desktop shortcut. Boom! Instant app.

As a point of reference, Freelance.com recently released the trends for outsource job postings. HTML5 came in just under geolocation with a 721 percent year-to-year increase (versus a 909 percent increase for location). This is going to be big, and I'd suggest starting to reformat most online offerings into HTML5 compatible pages ASAP.

When the iPad came around, many marketers were really excited, if only for the opportunity to jump into a fresh and less cluttered section of the App Store. After all, it's become quite difficult to stand out in the 220,000-plus apps on the iPhone, even with the weight of a national brand behind the release. Those marketers that bet on the iPad were happy to tout the amazing sales numbers: 3 million units in the first 80 days. That's 37,500 units a day.

What if I could tell those same marketers about a platform even less cluttered by brands than the iPad's section of the App Store that is selling units at 160,000 a day -- more than four times as fast as the iPad? They'd be super excited, right? Well marketers, meet Android.

Google has really done an amazing job with Android. When it first released, it was a pretty poor comparison to the iPhone. In a little under two years from launch, it's become a quite serious and threatening competitor to Apple. Despite its commercial success in the market (HTC saw a 63 percent increase in sales from Q2 2009 to Q2 2010), marketers have been slow to embrace the platform. Right now, Android's Market is about as vacant of brand presence as the App Store was a year and a half ago. Marketers would be wise to get in there now, before it clutters up.

For those interested in developing an app specifically for the platform, a couple of differences from iOS should be noted. First of all, Android allows users to easily replace system apps with ones they download. An example would be downloading a better or branded SMS program to send and receive text messages instead of the default app. Since the 2.1 update, one of the methods that should be interesting for advertisers to establish a presence on the phone is to distribute a "live wallpaper," a wallpaper that can move and users can interact with, through the Android Market. Finally, one of the major things Android still has over Apple's iOS is the ability to use widgets. A slick widget as part of the app is a great way to endear your brand to Android users.

I can't stress this final step enough. I know a number of major brands are currently working on or planning to develop for Android, and suspect the platform will clutter quickly. For marketers who complain about how difficult it is to stand out on the iPhone, if they don't currently have an Android app in development, they need to get it in gear. The other steps relate to future changes or lack an expiration date. This one offers a very short window of opportunity.

Josh Lovison is a digital strategy consultant.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Bret Pawlowski

2010, August 04

Thanks for the information. Well done! About a year ago I sat in front of several clients talking to them about a massive wave that was gathering strength. In that year we have experimented with several exciting ways of integrating mobile into markeing plans and have built a suite a products to help our clients transition to a mobile platform.