What makes sense in mobile?

Like most news companies, after a bit of fiddling around with in-house development, we've outsourced most of our mobile services to vendors. Although none has a particularly impressive product, there's no point in throwing a lot of resources at it, particularly in the depths of a brutal business recession. There's no money for news companies in mobile services right now.

But it's clear that in the long run, mobile access to network services is going to upend a lot of our assumptions about the use of information. So while the mobile sector doesn't merit a lot of investment, it does merit a lot of thought.

What is mobile, anyway? We have a whole range of platforms to consider:

  • Old-school candy-bar, flip and slider phones. Some of these were cool not so long ago. Today, my kids don't want them. They're dying, and taking with them the old-school WAP crud. Good riddance.
  • Pocket-size keyboard phones like the Blackberry Curve and an array of consumer products. They can browse the Web but rendering on their tiny screens creates a real mess. Options: Mobile-optimized Web products (perhaps with custom launchers) and dedicated apps.
  • Pocket-size, no-keyboard units like the iPhone. The iPhone (and its wifi-only cousin, the iPod Touch) can render regular Web pages fairly well, although the screen is painfully small. Options: Optimized HTML and dedicated apps.
  • Pad-size displays, like the Amazon Kindle, Sony E-reader, and upcoming products from Plastic Logic. They're not good at browsing the Web (and some are incapable). Here you're in the territory of developing dedicated products, with some (very small) potential for reader revenue.
  • Netbooks like the Eee, Acer Aspire One and Dell Mini 9. I've seen these tiny laptops for as little as $199, and when bundled with (expensive monthly) 3G access, as little as $99. Typically they give you 1024-pixel displays. All of them support wifi and pretty much every regular Web site.

While the end of WAP and the rise of HTML in the mobile arena certainly makes our lives easier, looking at this through from technology viewpoint is probably the wrong approach. It's more important to consider the mobile consumer's needs. And this, I think, is the area where newspapers are once again clobbered.

We're all off to a bad start, apparently having learned little or nothing from 15 years of online news publishing. The typical newspaper mobile product simply makes the same content (or actually a subset) available in a format digestible by phones. That's right, instead of an online newspaper, an on-phone newspaper. But still a newspaper approach.

A more user-focused approach might lead to tools like these:

  • A directory that keys off the built-in GPS chips in my phone. Find me the closest (fill in the blank), and give me a map, directions, and click-to-call.
  • Better yet, let me tell you the item I want to buy. Find prices at nearby stores.
  • Let me connect with my friends, keep them updated on my location, and invite them to meet me down at the coffee shop.
  • Share the picture I just shot with my neighbors and friends. After all, the phone is now also the camera.

All of these are local services, and all of them actually already exist in varying forms. I have apps on my Blackberry for everything I just described.

And, sadly, none of them comes from a news company.