Mobile Phones: The Crucial Platform

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2005-09-30

Mobile Phones: The Crucial Platform

SAN FRANCISCO—Despite all its new-fangled configurations, fancy ringtones, and creative games, the cell phone—and, by association, the greater wireless IT industry—is really about something much more old-fashioned: simply connecting people with other people, so they can do business, get to know each other, or enjoy entertainment together.

Cell phones and all their trimmings are fast becoming the new wireless tie that binds us all together. Some observers go so far as to call cell phones "social computers." Others believe that cell phones—especially when they break up the quiet of polite company with their often-jarring ringtones—are mostly just plain rude.

The idea of cell phone as social computer was an underlying theme at CTIAs (Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association) Wireless IT and Entertainment 2005 conference at the Moscone Center here.

"Well, its hard to call a cell phone a computer in the traditional sense of the word," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg told Ziff Davis Internet. "Theyre just wireless telephones; theyre configurable, but they cant compute anything. As for their place in the social perspective, Id say theyre more of a catalyst to extend the reach of people to other people, in terms of location and context."

Scientifically, that much is certainly correct. Cell phone-connected communities of all kinds are springing up, catalyzing people in every imaginable kind of special interest. Many of those special interests were in evidence at the CTIA event.

The common bond: A cell phone

Not only are people joining fantasy sports leagues, dating services and online group-centered competitive games in record numbers, theyre also signing up for "wallpaper" and ringtone clubs, camera-phone photography groups, travel-discussion groups, soft-porn groups—you name it, theres probably a company or special-interest group that will fit your personal interests. The common bond: You guessed it—a cell phone.

FunMail Inc., based in Pleasanton, Calif., is an example. FunMail is a cell phone community that stages different kinds of simple contests. One is "Americas Best Mobile Picture," in which members snap camera-phone photos of pets, babies, "cute" girls and boys, cars, and other things. They then e-mail their best ones into FunMail, vote on which of their peers pictures they like best, and win prizes if theyre lucky.

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For $2.99 per month, a subscriber can snap and send as many photos as he or she wants and submit them in for a chance to win prizes. They even get to see a graph showing how their picture ranks in the voting over time. "It a chance to become famous nationwide, or just sit back and be on the panel of deciding judges," a company data sheet said.

"Were aiming at the 16-to-24 demographic," said FunMail executive Jim Campbell, "but were finding a lot of other people outside that range are participating. In October, well be doing a hottest girl and hottest guy photo contest. We expect a pretty high participation level."

Subscribers then have the opportunity to interact with each other, if they choose. "They compare photos, talk about their experiences. A lot of guys are going to want to meet the hottest girl, and vice versa!" Campbell said.

FunMail is certainly the community catalyst there.

AG Interactive, a branch of 99-year-old American Greetings Corp., is currently delivering a lot more than birthday and anniversary e-cards through cell phones.

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A membership with AGI can bring customers such varied mobile phone entertainment as Def Jam Mobile Content (music, videos and poetry), streaming jazz music, and Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, who appear on your cell phone screen to announce a phone call or text message.

"Our products also include video ringtones, wallpapers, videos, eGreetings and evites—in addition to instant messaging content, like avatars, emoticons, winks, skins, and backgrounds," AGI Senior Vice President and General Manager Bryan Biniak told Ziff Davis Internet.

Next Page: Its still all about communicating with friends and colleagues.

Its still all about

communicating with friends and colleagues.">

When a user signs up for services like AGIs, they get a boatload of choices to make—all trickling into their own customized cell phone world. When friends sign up for the same services, they become a kind of interactive subgroup of AGI; they get on their phones or IM, compare their latest "downloadings," and try to outdo each other in friendly competitions.

This is taking community building to new commercial—yet still personal—levels.

New excuses to engage in social context

Digital Chocolate founder/CEO Trip Hawkins, a mobile device content guy, spoke in a keynote address about why cell phones are not "about content ... not now, anyway. (Theyre) about (making) new excuses to engage in social context."

Hawkins, who founded Electronic Arts Inc. in 1982 and is considered a visionary of sorts in the mobile game business, said that "simple is good when it comes to wireless. People just want a good, clear connection with each other. If you want to play a good video game, go home and turn on an Xbox."

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Hawkins pointed out that about 96 percent of the worlds wireless revenue streams from the killer app—voice transmission—and that the simplest communication applications are usually more than enough to satisfy users. This is the cell phone at its social best, he said.

"Look at all the most successful online services we have now," Hawkins said. "Text messaging, e-mail, chat, voice, personalization of services ... theyre all about people connecting with old friends, meeting new friends, and how they want themselves to be represented.

"The old model was that people grew up in small villages and enjoyed a tremendous amount of personal interaction throughout their lives. Now we live in far-flung houses and apartments—most of us in big, impersonal cities—and we spend a lot of time in our cars and at our work desks alone, so were starving for personal interaction.

"Sorry to say it, but an awful lot of us are not happy, and were not sure why. Were bored and lonely. Too often were popping Prozac. We want to interact and be entertained constantly," Hawkins said.

High quality of content isnt a high priority for the mobile industry, either, Hawkins said. "Fidelity isnt the issue. (Mobile) applications just need to be simple and work well enough. We need to keep coming up with new ways for people to get together online, new ways to keep the conversations going and get people to hook up with each other."

Gartenberg, of Jupiter Research, agreed that the "core voice experience" has to be good for the user right off the bat. Too often it is not.

"We had some telephony PDAs a while back on the market that tried to do a lot of things (in one unit), but they had lousy voice service," he said. "Those didnt last long in the market. Users expect to be able to hear clearly and keep a good connection. If a phone doesnt have that core competency, forget it. There are too many competitors out there to choose from."

Google is dipping its toe in WiFi and lots of other services, and our David Coursey is wondering where its all leading. Click here to read more.

Most users primarily desire a good voice connection and dont need to be fancy about all the add-ons, although thats precisely how the industry is banking cell phone users will, in fact, spend their money—by getting fancy.

Besides the plethora of choices for the appearance, sound, and content of the cell phone, there are companies coming up with other creative add-ons.

One of those is Immersion Corp., of San Jose, Calif., which makes VibeTonz, a vibration software which brings the dimension of touch to a phone. For example, when playing a game involving a motorcycle roaring down the highway, pressing a certain button will get you the buzzing "feel" of the vehicle in addition to the sound.

As the cycle sways right and left, you can feel it going right and left. As the cycle speeds up or slows down, the user can feel it buzzing stronger or weaker. The motorcycle sounds themselves are very realistic.

Sprint, Verizon, and Metro PC all will have phones within the next few months that will enable the VibeTonz software, an Immersion spokeswoman told Ziff Davis Internet.

Next Page: The barrier to entry is low.

The barrier to entry

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Heres another creative add-on: AG Interactive is developing an avatar (highly customizable drawing or photo of people, animals, cartoon characters, or inanimate objects that online users employ as identification in communicating with their peers) which will work in a contextual manner with e-mail or IM. Example: When a person is writing a happy or upbeat message, key words in the message will automatically change the expression on the avatar (if its a human or animal) to match the tone of the message. Likewise, if its a sad or downbeat message, the avatar will change to a sad expression.

Anybody can get one

The main reason these communities and new companies are coalescing so quickly around the cell phone? They are affordable in the basic form, and not overly expensive when dressed up.

In a 2004 article entitled "Our Cell Phones, Ourselves" in The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen wrote: "Some time between 2010 and 2020, everyone who wants and can afford a cell phone will have one." Some observers at CTIA said that timeline is way too conservative.

"Actually, I think there is a phone out there right now for anybody who wants one," said CTIA attendee Molly Burris, of Louisville, Ky. "The prices keep coming down all the time. You dont need to have any credit history for some of the carriers, and the pay-as-you-go model works for a lot of people."

Robert Rogers of Bellevue, Wash., said that "theyre amazingly cheap now. I mean, people spend more for phone accoutrements than they spend on their phone bills."

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Finally, there are those who would try to cut back the use of cell phones as much as possible because they are seen as a serious public safety issue. At the moment, 45 countries and New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia in the U.S. already have banned use of cell phones by drivers without some kind of hands-free device. Several other countries and U.S. states have instituted partial bans or are considering full bans.

A story in the George Washington University student newspaper this week tells of a professor at the school who has had it with cell phones. If a cell phone goes off in political science Professor John Sides class, the caller, not the student, will be answering to the instructor for it.

"If I can get to the phone before the person turns it off, I (answer it). Usually it rings, the class sucks in its breath, and the student usually turns it off in time," said Sides, who teaches a television and politics class. "Its been a few years since Ive had a conversation."

Sides, who does not own a cell phone, said in the story that he usually gets a ring about once every two weeks. Mobile phones are not an "essential" piece of equipment, he said, but they have embedded themselves in all parts of society.

"I do really think (having a phone go off) is rude in a variety of social circumstances, especially in a class," he said. "Its okay if we have technological developments, but we need to learn to use them in a polite manner."

If he had been at the CTIA event this week, Sides would have elicited more than a few arguments about whether cell phones are "essential" or not to 21st-century living. This is already a huge industry that isnt slowing its growth anytime soon.

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