mobile web revisited

This doesn’t come from one panel in general, but was spurred on in part by the panels on Saturday, but also from the overall SxSWi experience and things I’ve been mulling on for probably almost a year now.

Mobile web, in non-geek (non-affluent?) audiences, is probably still two or three years off. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s too expensive with not enough value for most people. As long as the carriers keep pricing where it is (for T-Mobile, my carrier, that’s an extra $20/month…per phone*), it’s going to come in slowly for a while. If the economy goes downhill, expect that to be even slower.

But after SxSW, I’ll add that there is an “on the other hand” — people who have mobile web are nuts about it. Admittedly, that may be because they’re already nuts about the web. (Sampling bias, etc., etc.) But it also seems to fill some rather particular wants. Yes, I was involved in a discussion in a bar where Wikipedia was used to settle an argument. (Margin of win in 2004 presidential popular vote, if you must know.) I saw mapping going on, and of course the incessant Twittering.**

So eventually it will be big, but eventually is driven by money. If the carriers want mobile web to take off, the pricing will change, and it’ll happen sooner. If not, it won’t.

What about the iPhone? I don’t see the iPhone tipping anything yet outside of geek culture. Here, in my real physical existence, I know one person who owns one. And he was at SxSW, which I think just proves my point.

And I refuse to speculate on wacky stuff with the Android Project, VoIP, or anything that’s not found in a booth at the mall.

There is, however, a third hand: texting. Texting is friggin’ huge. It’s so huge that even I got a text package added to our phones, and I am notoriously a mid/late adopter, if only because I’m cheap.

What does that imply for my professional world?

If we launch anything mobile web (be that site or banking), it would be inappropriate to expect it to be a huge hit right away. It has to be looked at as an investment for the long term: 3-5 years out. Doing it now is a case of getting practice, getting the bugs worked out, and maybe getting a little publicity. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean managing expectations. And we need to expect that we will need to do something eventually, because it’s coming. Eventually. (…which seems to have been a long time already.)

Something that does texting, OTOH, could be a big hit right away, IF it meets an actual need. That means thinking deeply about context: who is using it? Where? To what end? Or to revisit Kathy Sierra: how does a text message from your credit union help you kick ass?

[update: for extra sarcastic goodness, see]

* Most families, of course, are going to have multiple phones. So x2 for a couple, x3 to add a teenage kid, etc., etc. Plus don’t forget that phones that can do decent web are bigger (generally) and cost more money. As I heard at WebVisions last year, most people pick the cheapest phone that comes with the plan they want.

** I think of Twitter as the poster child for potential mobile social applications; I also think it’s interesting that they cross over all the online possibilities, including texting. That was my reason for adding texting to my phone plan.