The Future of Mobile

Last week I attended Forum Oxford, an annual conference on  new trends in mobile technology. Delegates ranged from mobile technology and strategy writers and researchers, to representatives from the large brands to smaller companies offering mobile products and services. Because the conference was quite small, it allowed for good Q&A sessions and a lot of thought-provoking conversation in the breaks.

It was extremely interesting to  hear about emerging trends from a largely technology focused group of people and to think about what this means for the users of these technologies. There were three areas of focus that I found particularly interesting:

  • Opportunities for Mobile Retail
  • Mobile Money and Mobile Identity
  • The Future of Mobile Web versus Apps

Mobile Intelligence as new Opportunities for Retail

The wealth of information about their customers that retailers could get from mobile devices opens up a whole new range of opportunities:

  • Personalised customer information gathered through mobile devices, e.g location information and past purchase history allow very targeted advertising to customers.
  • In-store wifi , QR code and NFC (near field communication) technology allows providing customers with rich contextual information about products, e.g. technical specs, videos, and reviews. And of course personalised information can be used here as well to greet a customer as soon as she walks into the store and point her in the direction of the most relevant offers.
  • Personalised virtual vouchers and coupons downloaded to mobile phones can stop misuse, which is a cost that retailers today need to factor into their offers. Reducing this cost enables retailers to give higher value offers and loyalty rewards to their highest value customers.

So what does this mean for us as the customers? Providing rich information in-store can bring together the best of both worlds: the wealth of information accessible on the Internet together with the tangibility of products and physical store environment. However, I think this experience could turn slightly annoying as well. We are used to seeing targeted advertising on the Internet based on our past behaviour, but do we want to be greeted on our phone by every Apple shop that we walk by just because we have bought an ipod once?

Mobile Money and Mobile Identity Management

Mobile money was a big topic. Inbuilt NFC chips enable a mobile phone to act as a virtual debit or credit card, and it also means that phones can act as a POS (point of sale) terminal to receive card or phone payments. Essentially this means that every shopkeeper who owns a smartphone also has a card terminal.

This opens up big opportunities both for businesses and consumers.

  • Consumers can  consolidate all payments in one device also including management of vouchers and coupons and storing the full history of their payments for a full control over their financial matters at any time far beyond mobile banking apps.
  • Businesses can benefit from the rich information captured of every transaction, e.g. the products purchased, location and demographic information of the customer.

It is obvious why businesses and advertisers would like to have this extra information about us. But how comfortable are we as consumers with this? Do we want to be open about everything we pay for?

  • Who gets access to this information?

 

  • Will we need multiple  payment identities and a way to block information from being stored or disclosed?
  • Also, will we be comfortable with holding our phones containing lots of personal information against a reader and broadcasting to the world around us? We know from some recent user research that people don’t consider their mobile phone as just another “card” to hold up to a reader, but are much more protective of it.

The big vision – a cashless society – is already closer in some African countries, e.g. the M-PESA system in Kenya, where mobile payments not only give citizens access to banking services in a country with a poor banking infrastructure, but can also reduce the number of robberies by reducing the amount of cash carried and corruption by cutting out the middlemen in cash transactions. An example given was that in Sweden robberies of bus drivers were significantly reduced when cashless payments were introduced. We heard that in fact Sweden is starting to think about getting rid of cash altogether!

Taking the mobile payment idea a step further the next role for the mobile phone could be mobile identity management.  The phone would become not only your debit card but your passport as well. Similar to the POS terminal function it would allow secure authentication between two phones without the recipient actually needing to be able to verify the validity of the document. It would mean the end of utility bills as proof of address.

In this way the phone could become our one device that holds all important information and enables us to lead our lives. Will we be comfortable constantly carrying around a device which is so incredibly valuable? Will we ever dare to take it out of our pockets for fear of having it stolen?

Mobile Websites versus Native Apps

The third big area of discussion was a bit more tactical but still extremely interesting. It concerned the relative merits and the future of mobile websites versus mobile apps.

Mobile websites:

  • Have a wider reach since they don’t require downloading and installing
  • Can reach those users using older technology phones and those with low connection speed since apps are only developed for mainstream smartphone OS
  • Provide an inconsistent experience today due to non-existing browser standards across mobile platforms

Native apps:

  • Have lower reach, because they need to be actively downloaded and installed
  • Provide a good user experience individually, but there is not much consistency across apps due to non-existing standards as well
  • Are more expensive to create and maintain since they need bespoke development for different platforms

The opinion of delegates at the conference was divided but my impression was that the majority thought that apps have provided a way to get a nice and usable mobile presence “out there” at a time when mobile web technology was not very  mature, but that once browser standards have been established, more businesses will switch from apps to mobile websites, because they are easier to create and maintain.

Again what does this mean for users? Most apps that are downloaded today are only used a few times and then discarded. A mobile website can be accessed as needed wherever and whenever and it will always be up to date. On the other hand apps today can provide a much richer experience, and it is hard to imagine how this can be fully matched by a browser in the future.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you think there will be a role for both mobile websites and apps in the future and what will they be?

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