Saturday, April 5, 2008

The business of mobile Web 2.0

This has been a busy week, with a trade show, a seminar, teaching two courses and a small academic conference. So now I’m just getting caught up.

On Monday’s Smartphone Summit at CTIA, I moderated a panel entitled “Smartphone Interactivity (Social Networking & Personal Communications)”. This was a reprise of the same role I held back in October.Even more so than in October, we had an elite panel:

  • Jason Ling: Senior Product Manager Mobile Products, MySpace
  • R. Paul Singh: President and CEO, PixSense
  • Bill Tam: CEO, EQO
  • Jennifer Vancini: Sr. Director Market Development, Symbian North America
  • Boaz Zilberman: Chief Architect, fring
Without canned presentations, we did a roundtable discussion on a series of key questions (suggested by my panelists) and (alas) only one or two from the floor. This is one of the very best panel discussions I’ve ever been involved in — we were really in the zone, with very little dead time, digressions, ”me too” comments or other problems endemic to panel discussions.

Obviously, being on the panel, I couldn’t take realtime notes, but below is what I captured after the fact.

What is “social networking"?
Bill Tam: “How are you going to communicate with people that matter to you”.

Is mobile social networking distinct from the larger domain of social networking?
Jason Ling: MySpace is platform agnostic, because it’s just another way to access the same information. You want to have the most possible devices.
Paul Singh: the idea of platform agnostic is mainly a US concept, because people in most of the world don’t have other access devices.

Is the future of mobile social networking in browser-based or native apps?
Boaz Zilberman: web apps are best for content, while native applications are best for communication — particularly when integration with other phone functions (e.g. the adress book) is required.

Do location based services matter?
Two biggest barriers to LBS are not technical, they are privacy concerns and fragmentation. Fragmentation is both carrier APIs, and also the fragmentation of national policy regulations.

Does ubiquity make mobile services more useful than PC services?
Again, not everyone has a laptop. But there are some applications (e.g. twitter) where constant availability allows you to really share with your friends what you are doing on an ongoing basis.

How does the US compare to elsewhere?
Interestingly, much of the technology is developed in the Bay Area, but even their main markets are overseas.

What do we do about spam?
Many Friendster “friends” are scams or commercial ties, as with blogging comments or search engine optimization. Where there’s money, people will abuse the system — as with telemarketers. The problem with social media will end the day that junk mail ends.

How do you make money?
The list was fairly conventional
  • Mobile ads. Many teenagers (raised on Napster and Kazaa) expect free. Social media often has very good information on the user (or his/her ties) that inreases the value of ads.
  • Intermediary/portal. Fring is reselling other services such as VoIP to PSTN) which provide revenues (at least until that gets commoditized).
  • Royalties/licensing technology. PixSense sells services to carriers and others that want to offer this, but want to run their own services.
  • Subscriptions. More common in other countries
  • Transaction fees. People pay for ringtones, and will sometimes pay for other stuff.
Still, this list of ways of making money seems a bit like dot-com models of the late 1990s. Yes, Amazon and eBay collected a fee on every transaction, but others hoped to monetize via banner ads. Google was able to serve a very broad audience and bought code for targeting ads, and thus became the master of monetizing eyeballs, but many other companies failed to get enough revenues (which gave us the dot-bomb era).

Outside the session, one attendees speculated that the business model is exit via rolloup — get bought by some big firm that needs a portfolio of services to offer. In other words, spend your VCs money until you can convince Google (or Yahoo or MSN or Fox or AOL) to bail out the VCs.

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