On Monday, I moderated a panel at the Smartphone Summit, held in San Francisco as part of this week's Wireless IT & Entertainment conference. The main conference is organized by the CTIA (the main US cell phone trade association), while Monday's "Summit" was privately organized and heavily sponsored by leading mobile phone companies (notably Symbian).
The session I moderated was called "Smartphone Interactivity (Social Networking & Personal Communications)," one of two parallel sessions that closed out the summit. The claim of the program was that:
In today's world, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and many other social networking experiences have made their way into everyday life around the globe. The next natural extension of the social interactive experience is to the wireless smartphone device. With the capability to run audio and video along with GPS locating, there is no limit to the type of social interactive applications that could be deployed over smart mobile devices. Join the pioneers taking social networking wireless for an in-depth look at the implications of this technology, including how it may be monetized for ROI of those enabling these experiences, as well as security of the experience.WIth only a few minutes to present, I focused on two goals. One was providing a preview of the study by my graduate students (Eduardo Sanchez and German Benitez) who are doing their theses on social media business models for the mobile phone industry. The other was to provide an overview of what's going on in the industry, based on what I know from working with Eduardo and German, reading the trade journals/websites and going to industry events (particularly last month's Mobile Monday event).
In my slides, I joked that the buzzwords "Social networking" or "social media" or "Web 2.0" seem to be used interchangeably, so it was a relief to hear that a morning panel had been unable to agree on a definition of "Web 2.0." (Tim O'Reilly claims to have invented the term "Web 2.0," but people seem to use his buzzword more than his definition.
I saw people taking pictures of my slides with a cameraphone (you can download them free from my website). I didn't think the slides were particularly insightful because I was rushed between two conferences and a backlog of grading (which I've been working to clear today).
I had a chance to attend a few earlier sessions, and what I heard confirmed most of what I'd prepared. "Social networking" (or "social media" or "Web 2.0") business models seem to be driven by two major trends. One is user-generated content (like this blog), and the other is taking advantage of the value created by direct network effects, i.e. the N x (N-1) possible linkages of a population of N users. (This is called Metcalfe's Law, but researchers last year showed that it grossly overstates the value of a network due to the long-known distribution of value via Zipf's law. In fact, this power law describes many of the interactions on the Internet.)
Obviously the strongest possible business models are those that combine both. While both Facebook and MySpace are about allowing friends to stay in touch, MySpace also plays a major role in spreading word-of-mouth for members' favorite music. (Jason Ling of MySpace was up from the fires in Los Angeles to speak on the panel, but his prepared slides were left behind when Delta lost his luggage.) However, in visiting a booth at the trade show Tuesday, someone showing Nokia's download site there is a difference between organizing around social networks like Facebook (I want to see people who I know) and around content as with Flickr or YouTube (I want to see a video of the latest politician's gaffe).
One of the unresolved questions regarding mobile social media is whether there will be mobile-only and PC-only networks, or whether the successful sites will support both. (I almost said "platform agnostic," but with 500 different phones out there, developers of mobile applications have to do a lot of work to be platform agnostic just within the mobile space.) Of course, it takes considerable work to turn a PC website into a good cellphone website, which is why everyone was excited to see how well Google Maps works on the iPhone.
I think such dual PC/mobile content drives a related trend that I picked up on at the Summit, which is the rising use of web-based applications. One reason is that developers need to span not only the PC and phones, but also the various platforms within each. The other reason for web-based apps is that it's finally practical: the iPhone has one of the first decent phone-based browsers, but Nokia (and others) are going to make sure that it's not the last.
This led to the only heated argument on our panel, in which Faraz Hoodbhoy (CEO of PixSense) said I was wrong. Perhaps I didn't make myself clear, or he wasn't listening clearly, as I never said web apps are the be-all or end-all. My point about mobile web apps is that they're a least common denominator which are getting more practical and will be good enough for many of the Google-, Yahoo- and MySpace-type applications that are already designed for them.
There are plenty of apps that require offline access, or low latency, or persistence, for which a native app will be a much better solution. There's many things you can do on the native Google Earth application that you can't do on Google Maps. I don't know what the relative mix of the two approaches will be -- and even web apps have to be tuned for the different form factors -- but I think mobile web apps are here to stay.