2006 has been an exciting year to be involved with the mobile web and mobile data in general. I want to highlight four major developments this past year which I believe are going to have a profound and positive effect on the quality of the mobile web experience for years to come.
- Mobile web advertising comes of age. I credit this almost entirely to AdMob, the startup that took the Google AdSense model and applied it to mobile. Seems like a simple thing to do but it sure caught on. Before 2006, it was rare to see an ad on a mobile site, AdMob opened the flood gates and now it's just the opposite - mobile sites without ads are the exception. What's so great about that? Simply this, advertising makes the mobile web economically viable. Before AdMob, the off-portal mobile web was dying, there was no way to pay the bills except perhaps with porn and gambling. Only the carriers made money with the mobile web and carriers don't innovate. AdMob did an end run around the carriers making it possible for startups to monetize innovation.
- The First "Killer" Mobile Apps I know this is a controversial call but for me at least they have arrived. There are three mobile sites and applications (two from the newly "evil" Google) that have become an indispensable part of my life. They are:
- The Gmail for Mobile Application - simply the fastest and easiest way to read email on a mainstream phone - it runs rings around any mobile web based solution. Unlike other Java and non-Blackberry native email applications on phones, everything you do with mail on the phone - sending, deleting, archiving and tagging - synchronizes back to the Gmail servers and shows up in web based Gmail as well.
- Google Reader Mobile - I've been a Bloglines user for a long time but I've switched to the latest revision of Google Reader and it was the mobile version (image) that prompted me to switch. Bloglines mobile is good but has long had some annoying bugs. The "keep unread" feature only works about a third of the time. Unread items get marked as read and disappear when you follow a link in a post. The clincher was Bloglines forcing all external links through the Skweezer transcoder without anyway to get to the original site - even if it was a mobile site or if you were using a full web browser like Opera Mini. In comparison, Google's mobile reader transcodes linked pages but offers you a link to to the original page as well. Other pluses for Google Mobile are providing the choice of reading a River of News or picking and choosing from among your feeds and items and Google's resizing of images to fit your browser.
- Mologogo, a Java application that uses my phone's GPS to show me where I am on a zoomable map. The latest beta version adds local search so I can see the nearest Starbucks, atm or sushi bar plotted on the map in relation to my location - awesome. There's a good overview with screenshots of Mologogo at the MAKE:Blog. Mologogo currently only works on iDEN phones and Windows Mobile Smartphone and PPC devices. For other handsets, another GPS enabled Java app MGMaps, comes in several versions that run on most Java equiped phones and can use either external GPS units over Bluetooth or the handsets built in GPS.
- Cheap Unlimited Data Plans - The last US holdouts, Verizon and Cingular now offer unlimited data to the handset at respectively $15 and $20 dollars a month. T-Mobile is the US value leader in mobile data at $6/month. Sprint/Nextel's Boost and MVNO STI give even prepaid users $10/month unlimited data plans. The European providers holdout against all you can eat mobile data seems almost over now that the UK's Three has broken ranks with their X-Series £5-10/month unlimited data plans.
- Improved user experience thanks to faster networks and better browsers. 2006 saw 3G being rolled out in the US and become ubiquitous in Europe and Japan. Just as broadband fueled Web 2.0, the faster pipes of 3G have made the mobile web experience richer with scrolling maps and video. The better browsers part is 99% due to Opera's Mini which has made a powerful and easy to use mobile browser available on most phones for free. Built in browsers on entry level and feature phones are cr*p. Mini is a "full" web browser capable of displaying most PC sites but it's also the best browser for mobile specific sites with it's speed, superb image handling and intuitive UI. Nokia's WebKit browser and the latest Opera Mobile and Netfront browsers provide smartphone users with a similar enhanced experience with additional capabilities for downloading media and fledgling mobile AJAX capabilities.
To me, 2006 is the year that the mobile web and mobile data entered mainstream consciousness. The year saw a flurry of mobile site launches by major media and internet companies like Time, Newsweek, Weblogs, Inc , Gawker Media and virtually every daily newspaper in the country. Most major online news, sports, travel and finance sites now have a mobile web presence, many of which were launched or redesigned this year. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL did total redesigns of their mobile portals with Google and Microsoft in particular rolling out loads of new and well done features.
But what about adoption by users, is mobile web and data traffic up? In May Forbes carried a widely quoted article suggesting that Mobile Web and Data growth was slowing. Personally I don't buy that. My own 3 year old YesWAP.com portal - which is just a hand picked catalog of my favorite off-portal sites - saw 2006 traffic that was quadruple that of 2005. Actually, Forbes blamed the slowdown on hard to use (compared to iTunes!) carrier portals and lack of imaginative marketing - again by the carriers. If you focus on the carriers you will miss the real action in mobile data today which is happening off-portal. Telcos and ISPs like AOL tried and failed to keep the eyeballs on their proprietary portals in the early days of the web. The same thing is happening in mobile with the carriers rapidly becoming just pipes to innovative off-portal sites and data services.