shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Its Communication, Stupid

To hear the makers of internet-enabled phones tell it, content is
going to be king again, because mobile phone subscribers are clamoring
for expensive new ways of getting headline news.  The feature list for
wireless devices reads like a re-hash of every 'content provider'
press release of the last five years: Travel Updates. Stock quotes.
Health tips. And of course all of this great content is supposed to
lead to a rise in M-Commerce, a re-hash of E-Commerce.  Many wireless
analysts have bought this line, and are annointing future winners
already, based on their perceived ability to deliver cutting edge
content like sports scores (now _there's_ a brainstorm). The telcos
obviously haven't asked what their customers want in a wireless
device, and when they finally do ask, they are going to be in for a
rude shock, because most of their customers aren't desperate for
packaged content, no matter how 'dynamic' it is. It seems strange to
point this out to the Nokia's and Sprint's of the world, but the thing
users want to do with a communications device is communicate, and
communicate with each other, not with Proctor and Gamble or the
NBA. Stranger still, the killer wireless app is already out there, and
its driving the adoption of a wireless device which isn't just another
mobile phone+WAP browser combo. The killer app is email, and the
device in question is a pager on steroids called the Blackberry,
manufactured by RIM (Research in Motion).

Building a usable wireless device is complicated, and the Blackberry
gets a lot of things right -- it gets around the form factor problem
of ideal size by offering both a pager-sized version and a PDA-sized
version; it provides a surprisingly usable thumb-sized keyboard to
speed text input; and it offers always-on connection at flat-rate
prices. But the thing that really has gadget-loving CEOs addicted to
it is access to the only thing really worth paying for: their own
email. No matter what the press releases say, mobile internet access
is about staying in touch, and travelling executives have a much
greater need to stay in touch with colleagues and family than with CNN
or ESPN. RIM has gotten it right where the current vendors of wireless
devices have it wrong, by realizing that email is the core interactive
service and everything else is an add-on, not the other way around.

Despite email's status as the net's most useful application, it has a
long history of being underestimated. In the earliest days of
DARPANET, email was an afterthought, and caught its designers by
surprise when it quickly became the most popular service on the
nascent net. Fast forward to the early 90's, when Prodigy set about
raising the price of its email services in order to get people to stop
wasting time talking to each other so they could start shopping, and
got caught by surprise when many users defected to AOL. And just this
June eMarketer.com expressed some puzzlement at the results of a
Pricewaterhousecoopers survey, which found that teens were going
online primarily to talk to one another via email, not to shop. (Have
these people never been to a mall?)  The surprise here is that phone
companies would make the same mistake, since phones were invented to
let people communicate. How could the telcos have spent so many
billions of dollars creating wireless services which underplay the
communications capabilities of the phone?

There are several answers to that question, but they can all be rolled
into one phrase: media envy. Phone companies are trying to create
devices which will let them treat people as captive media subscribers,
rather than as mere customers. Email is damaging to this attempt in
several ways: The email protocol can't be owned. It is difficult to
insert ads without being instrusive. It allows absolute
interoperability between customers and non-customers. Worst of all,
telcos can't charge sponsors for access to their user base if those
users are more interested in their email than headline news.  The
phone companies hope to use their ability to charge by the byte or
minute to recreate the 'pay for content' model which has failed so
miserably on the wired net, and they don't want to run into any
Prodigy-style problems of users preferring email to for-fee content on
the way, especially as serious email use requires the kind of keyboard
and screen its difficult to fit into a phone. Vendors of mobile phones
are committed to text-based content rather than text-based
communication in large part because that's what its easy to make a
phone do.

The Nokia's and Sprint's of the world made a strategic miscalculation
by hyping the current generation of WAP phones as 'wireless internet',
Users understand that the most important feature of the internet 
is email, and it is a pipe dream to believe that users will care more
about receiving packaged content than news from home. As with the
development of the wired internet, communications will lead the growth
of content and commerce in the wireless space, not follow it. The RIM
devices are by no means perfect, but unlike WAP phones they create in
their users the kind of rapt attention usually reserved for Gameboy
addicts, by giving them something of real value. Ignore the wireless
analysts who don't get that wireless devices are primarily
communications tools. Bet against any service that assumes users are
eager to pay to find out what the weather is like in Sausalito. Bet on
any service that makes wireless email easier to use, because whoever
makes email easier will earn their users undying loyalty, and
everything else will follow from that.


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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source