What is the future of mobile? Q&A with Tomi Ahonen
The speed of change and level of innovation in mobile is mind-boggling. One thing is for sure: mobile is, and will continue to be, the communication platform of choice for people across the globe. But what will a mobile device look like and how will people use it?
If companies/organizations want to engage customers and clients, retain them, learn more about them and sell to them, then they need to plan a cohesive and agile mobile strategy that will prepare them for the years ahead. That’s why the world needs mobile visionaries, people who can, and are brave enough to, interpret the trends and innovation and share their vision of how mobile will shape the world. Tomi T Ahonen is one of these people. He’s a consultant, prolific author, inspirational speaker and a blogger – perhaps the world’s most influential mobile blogger in the world, according to Forbes columnist Haydn Shaughnessy. So mobiThinking invited Tomi Ahonen to gaze into his crystal ball and share his view of where the mobile world is headed.
Q1) In a nutshell, what is your vision for the future of mobile?
Mobile is the enabling centerpiece of digital convergence. Mobile is the glue for all other digital industries to use when approaching convergence, but mobile is also the digital gateway for the real world to join in this global metamorphosis of human behavior. I think the The Economist said it best when, in the issue celebrating the 30th birthday of the PC, it wrote that mobile will fulfill the promise of the 'personal' computer.
Q2) Why is it important to try to forecast the future of mobile?
Chetan Sharma forecasted, back in 2011, that the world will change more in the next 10 years, than it did in the previous 100 years. Now that’s a mind-boggling concept. Just look at media, in the past 100 years the way people live has been totally changed with radio, TV, the Internet and, now, mobile. Consider how much media has changed our lives: the scheduled evening entertainment routine, which came with radio; the rise of the TV celebrity; the Web which introduced us to social media; and the globalization of media via mobile, which reaches even to the poorest parts of the world.
And that’s just media, that doesn’t include the impact of the 20th century’s multitude of non-media inventions on our lives e.g. the credit cards, nuclear power or the jet engine. The world has never changed as quickly as it does today. The modern world is increasingly complex and connected and will just become more so in the future.
Planning for the future entails companies making decisions that will have huge impact – on employment, factories, warehouses and resources – and the larger the business, the larger the consequences of this decision making. If the company invests in the wrong option the effects can be catastrophic. Take Kodak, for example, the company invented digital camera, then chose to ignore it, eventually it became bankrupted by the digital photography revolution it seeded.
All company management teams need guidance to help plan for the future. The more complex the future, the more that guidance is needed. The more rapid the change, the more that guidance is needed. And mobile is one of the most complex fast-moving business environments facing companies today – and, if Chetan Sharma is right, the speed of change will only keep accelerating.
Mobile is on the agendas of most major corporations now, but few of these have mobile as their core business. They don’t have the talent in-house or the time to invest in studying every emerging trend – not just mobile, but social media, 3D printing, cloud computing etc – they have to find competent guidance into the areas that will be important for their businesses.
Q3) Do companies/organizations/governments look into the future of mobile when they are setting out their mobile strategy? If not, what should they be doing?
For the most part, today, the answer is: no. Most major companies (excluding those in the mobile business – telecoms operators, handset makers etc who obviously understand the market) see mobile only as a component of their digital media planning. So mobile might fall within the remit of the digital marketing team, along with online and social.
There are notable exceptions, such as Coca-Cola and Unilever, both of which I witnessed picking up awards at the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) Forums in Singapore and India; along with Visa in financial industries, Turner in broadcasting and Finnair in Airlines, which already have mobile teams. But most companies are only starting to explore the opportunities in mobile and the knowhow is thin and limited.
I think companies should investigate mobile in three stages:
First, companies should monitor what their rivals are doing in their own industry. It may be that they are severely falling behind. I think of hotels for example, some hotels are busily deploying hotel room door locks that can be operated by mobile phones. That’s the kind of thing rivals should be looking out for.
Second, they should listen to what big global management gurus and industry leaders are saying and doing. For example, listen to what the leaders at Google and Apple are saying – note neither of these were originally mobile companies – one was an Internet company; the other was a PC and music player manufacturer. If companies like that start singing 'mobile mobile mobile' – or anything else, for that matter – then it’s time to look seriously into that area. Look at how companies such as Sony and Starbucks are prioritizing mobile from the top down. You know it is serious when the CEO of a coffee chain preaches about mobile successes in shareholder/analyst earnings calls.
Third, look to the mobile thought leaders. Who are they? In modern times it’s very easy to locate find them via social media and the Internet. Do a bit of analysis and names like Tony Fish, Russell Buckley, Dave Birch, Madan Rao, Peggy Anne Salz, Michael Becker and Dan Appelquist quickly surface .
Q4) What will mobile "devices" look like? Will people still be lugging round huge smartphones with rubbish battery life? Or things like smart watches, glasses or other smart things that we've yet to be surprised by?
Lovely question and I wish I knew. I don't think anyone really knows. If you were to get to interview the R&D bosses at Apple, Google, Samsung etc, and if they answered honestly, I think they'd say: they don't really know, but they are experimenting and they have some visions.
I believe Moore's Law will continue to hold – the law states that computing power will double roughly every 18 months. This means we can keep shrink gadgets because the electronics inside them keep shrinking. So potentially a device of the same ability could be half the size 18 months later. Or more likely, we can keep adding capability to our tech.
Some innovations may seem frivolous at first – remember when someone first showed you the SMS text message ability on a basic phone? I am sure most people reacted like I did: that seems dumb, slow, clumsy, and I can't imagine it ever becoming popular. Certainly I couldn't imagine why I would type out a message with those painfully early keyboards, when I could just call someone instead. But 20 years on SMS text messaging has 6 billion users worldwide according to estimates from Acision.
And now we are entering the era of ‘wearable’ mobile technology with smart glasses, in the form of Google Glass, and smart watches, with Samsung Galaxy Gear, Sony SmartWatch, Qualcomm Toq and Pebble.
As the technology shrinks, we can embed it into other aspects of life. Ericsson predicts that by 2020 there will be 50 billion connected devices on the planet. Today there are about 8 billion. I think the more interesting aspect is the opportunity. They already are testing displays that are embedded onto contact lenses – then we won't need to wear cumbersome 'Google Glass' type of eyeglasses. So in the future some mobile tech might be in our pocket, some on our wrist and some we might wear directly over our eye.
Q4b) Will it still be about hardware brands, operating systems, features and form factors?
Some of it will be hardware. I do believe that eventually we will start to swallow some of the tech and it will live inside our bodies in some way –
maybe implanted under our skin or worn inside a tooth, etc. But the hardware will still be needed to access the digital services. Most of those will be on the cloud of course. Martin Feldstein is an expert on cloud computing. So the evolution will be far more on the software and services side, and the proportion of innovation coming from the hardware, will continue to shrink. Think back to the beginning, with those 'brick' mobile phones – back then it was 99 percent hardware and 1 percent service, the ratio has been changing ever since.
Q4c) Will it still make calls?
Yes, I think voice communication is very human. Some times we just want to hear the voice of someone we love or must hear what our client is really thinks or intending. Sometimes, especially when things go wrong, you get a much truer impression by talking to someone on the phone, than corresponding with them by email etc.
Q5) What is the future of messaging? Is SMS going to die? Will all those proprietary over the top (OTT) messaging systems start to talk to each other?
Ah, one of my favorite topics. Yes, in the very long run, SMS will die, probably… but not in this decade, not even in the next. OTT services already pass more mobile messages globally than SMS as a platform, according Informa’s estimates (April, 2013). The heavy users – the youth – discovered OTT services early, and as they shifted their traffic, they also brought their friends along. Eventually favorite uncles and older cousins, eventually even parents, join, and the OTT platforms keep adding users. But SMS is still a powerful tool because it works on every phone, so there will often be situations where a given person isn't on 'your' OTT platform, so you then send an SMS. Or if you want to vote on a TV show, or get a discount coupon, or pay for your Coca-Cola vending machine or whatever, you will still send an SMS.
Q6) What about mobile Web? What proportion of the global population will be using it? Will the majority of people be purchasing goods over mobile Web? What does that mean for companies' Web strategy?
The global trends are all only in one direction and unstoppable. But the metrics reported are confusing. So, for example, if we measure 'browsing' of Internet content, then the number of users – i.e. the people that visit Websites using a mobile, maybe just rarely, rather than Web pageviews or total traffic – the number of users on mobile passed the PC-based user base of the Internet back in year 2009, according to stats by Nokia and IBM.
So, why do we then hear stats that the cross-over point, where mobile overtakes PC Web, is expected to happen next year, or soon after? Because studies measure different things – there is basic Web browsing, and there is 'the real Internet'. So, for example, on our smartphones, we have an HTML browser, that is 'the real Internet'. But on most cheap phones and older featurephones, there is not an HTML browser, there is a simpler WAP browser. WAP is still browsing – all those popular Websites, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Amazon etc are also all available via WAP, even though this is legitimate 'browsing' it’s not included in HTML measurements of the Internet. And yes, in much of the world, most of Africa, much of Asia and Latin America, even poorer parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, there are millions upon millions of WAP users. They don't surf much, and their access is slow, and cumbersome on phones that do not have touch screens, but they’re doing just the same thing as a smartphone user: searching on Google, liking someone on Facebook etc. Earlier this month, at the MMA Forum in India I learned that there are twice as many basic phone Internet users than smartphone Internet users in India. It’s safe to assume that most of those Indian surfers are still using WAP today.
This creates a radically different picture of the future of the net versus the past. The majority of the next billion Internet users, won’t enjoy their first visit to the Internet on a PC, but with a mobile device – whether that’s a touch-screen smartphone or a feature phone. When/if they later use a big screen PC, they will be overwhelmed by the clutter and complexity of PC sites, the massive keyboard and weird mouse.
As to mobile commerce, that’s another unstoppable trend. Eventually most, not necessarily all, but most of our commercial behavior will be through connected services, rather than via physical stores. Mostly using, what today we call, the smartphone-based mobile Internet, which will all become much more straight-forward when we all have a mobile wallet embedded onto that same phone, so we never need to enter any credit card numbers, etc.
Q7) Will there still be native apps or will the Web and Web apps win out?
I think there are natural domains for both Web and app. Imagine doing Google Search of the total Internet, using a native app. Each morning the app would need to download the full Google index to your phone, so you can then search, via that app. That is just silly. On the other hand, imagine Angry Birds, and putting all that private gaming experience on your network connection as you fling those birds at those evil pigs. Gaming is naturally suited for apps – it has always had a separate ecosystem with games packaged for particular platforms, i.e. games consoles which were designed only to play those games.
Most digital services sit somewhere in the middle, and could be done by either apps or Web. There is considerable debate about mobile Web v app, but I hold the view, personally, that the mobile Internet will become the majority and the apps area one of specialist needs and innovation.
Q8) What is the future of mobile payment – will everyone use their mobile device to pay for goods, transport etc using NFC? Will cash go out of fashion? Or will m-payment still be used by a small fraction of the community? Will all retailers etc have to invest in NFC?
Yes, I believe fully that cash will finally disappear. Dave Birch wrote a fantastic article recently about the history of money and I learned that cash, or coins, to be precise, was invented in Turkey about 2,500 years ago. It is apt then, that Turkey is aiming to become the first cashless society, as they have official government plans to end the production of cash by year 2025. This transition, however, will be very different around the world. Some countries are far ahead, like Kenya where almost half of the economy already transits mobile phones. Other countries are barely beginning on this journey. But it’s amazing how readily consumers adopt mobile payment, just look at Starbucks, it only introduced m-payment in 2011, now – according to the Q3 earnings report – 10 percent of the company’s total US income comes via mobile.
Q9) What is the future of mobile advertising/marketing - will companies devote more of their budgets to it? What proportion will/they should they be spending. What will mobile media look like - will it still be banners and search ads?
Oh, possibly more than anything else, marketing and advertising will be transformed by mobile into forms and means that we never imagined only a few years ago. The advertising industry is the most creative business on the planet, so when they get to play with mobile, truly magical things happen. I teach advertisers in my workshops that mobile is the “magical measurement machine” – because you can measure anything if you include mobile in the marketing mix.
I do think the time of banner ads will pass. We will move more towards engagement marketing, which is particularly well suited to run on messaging formats.
Q10) What role will mobile play in the future of customer relationship management (CRM) – how will companies engage customers? Will every company be managing huge databases of opt-in subscribers and profile data?
This will change not so much marketing or media, it will change how businesses and governments operate. We saw some of that in the Obama 2012 campaign, which build the most thorough consumer database for voting purposes ever. Now the CRM professionals are digging into these success stories deliver insights to consumer businesses, governments and NGOs – to illustrate how mobile can help them better understand who their true customers, users, constituents etc really are and how to use the medium to serve them better.
Q11) What do you think to augmented reality (AR) – is this hype that will disappear or will it become part of everyday life?
I was an early convert to AR and I now am convinced it is the eighth mass media (the first seven mass media are print, recordings, cinema, radio, TV, Internet and mobile). The early numbers and data look promising. The best news is that AR is now starting to find paid business, so it can no longer be called a fad or gimmick.
Q12) What are the implications for security – will devices be plagued by security risks and will companies be fighting a losing battle as employees use consumer/personal devices for work?
That battle was lost already, as soon as people started to carry two phones. Companies now need to start to understand the mobile environment and prepare for it. Part of this is cloud computing, obviously, and there are huge benefits to having your employees be willing to use their personal devices to access work-related files, as long as those are sensibly managed.
Q13) Health, Learning, Banking etc – will any of these be immeasurably changed by mobile? Will this be for the better?
All will be radically changed, hopefully for the better. One of the most interesting examples recently comes from New Zealand where teachers no longer tell the kids to put their phones away in class. Teachers are now encouraged by the education department to use mobile phones in class, as teaching tools.
Q14) Empowerment - will the mobile revolution bring greater equality in developing countries or will cost, poor infrastructure, lack of services create an even greater gulf between the rich and poor countries.
Oh yes, yes, yes. The changes to people who never had connectivity will be far greater than the changes to those of us who have multiple ways to connect and communicate. mBillionth Awards organized by Osama Manzar is an excellent showcase of socially responsible mobile initiatives that span the digital divide and advance education, healthcare, etc.
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