Monday, November 26, 2007

A mobile Internet bust on the cards ?

Most venture capitalists will tell you that mobile data, accessed by consumers using mobile handsets, is the next big market worldwide. People will use their mobiles to access their mail, do search, social networking, instant messaging, and even blog from their mobile phones. So venture capital has flowed into companies that develop all kinds of mobile applications that will improve the “mobile Internet experience”.

Yahoo’s co-founder David Filo took the hype a little further earlier this year when he said he expected that most people in emerging economies like India would have their first experience of the Internet using mobile phones. The logic, I guess, is that India has been adding between 5 to 7 million new mobile phone users each month, but far fewer new PCs.

But most of the new phones have not been added for Internet connectivity, but plain telephony, and I often wonder how thousands of Indians, whose literacy doesn’t go beyond the ability of dialing a telephone number, are going to find any use for goodies from the Internet.

For those who would like to access the Internet on the move, the better option is a laptop which is not a lot expensive if you need the Internet badly, and you can afford the full-featured PDAs that offer Internet access and other bells and whistles with a mobile phone. Why would an user struggle to enter mail on a PDA when he has the full-blown laptop option, or he can go a cyber café ?

To be sure the mobility is important, but frankly is there any fun in squinting into a miniature browser to read the daily news, or a research report, or a sales report, while at the same time worrying how much that download could be costing you. The moment you decide on mobile Internet, you are talking of costs by the kilobyte, not megabytes, because that is the way the service provider charges you. So browsing for fun on your mobile is an absolute no-no, unless you have a corporate account, and the accounts folks are looking the other way.

I picked up a PDA a few days ago, and I do not use the browser on my mobile to go to my favorite web sites, or download my mail, because it is a lot more expensive than when I am at my laptop, and it is far slower too.

As I would be paying big bucks for a lousy experience, I use the Internet capability on my PDA mainly for emergencies. That certainly doesn’t make me the darling of my service provider. Lots of folks like me can cripple the business plans of those who swear by the mobile Internet.

My friends scoff at me for picking up a PDA and Internet data plan from my mobile provider. Just what is it that I do that requires me to have instant access to my mail or to the Internet ? Can’t it wait say 30 minutes to an hour ? Does it give me a competitive edge ? Or will it only ensure that I lose my eyesight earlier than usual, squinting into the small screen of the mobile phone ?

The data seems to bear my friends out. Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, show that only 13 percent of cell phone users in North America use their phones to surf the Web more than once a month, while 70 percent of computer users view Web sites every day, according to this report in the New York Times.

Data is clearly not a hot application yet on the mobile. The New York Times quotes in the same report an analyst from Rethink Research, who said data would make up only 12 percent of average revenue per user in 2007, far below the expected 50 percent. The 12 percent figure does not include text messaging.

For users of mobile phones to use mobile Internet for one its prices have to hit basement levels, and bandwidth has to improve. That would require service providers to increase their capital outlays even as they have to cut on unit charges. But that is not all. For new users of the Internet there has to be a compelling application on the mobile that will make them embrace the Internet on a mobile phone rather than on the desktop or laptop. For traditional Internet users like me, who use the Internet for work, the Internet on the mobile phone can only be a tool for an emergency.

For now the mobile Internet seems to be the stuff mainly of marketing spiels, and big dreams that may go awry.

Related article:

Will you buy Potatoes on the Net ?

No comments: