Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Mobile Web is Ripe for Disruption

Lately, I’ve done a lot of reading about Flash vs. HTML5 on the mobile platform. The issues surrounding this debate are complex and entail technology as well as corporate strategy. The debate is also evolving on an almost daily basis with discussions of battery life, video speeds and resource consumption. I have read all of this knowing that the future of the mobile experience lies in the balance. Then it hit me, for all that this debate is, it may not decide the future of the mobile web after all. Let me explain.

The Past . . .

The history books are filled with examples of technologies that outgrew their user’s needs. Internet enabled Refrigerators that connected to our home computer so we could manage our grocery lists never could overcome the simplicity of notepaper and a magnet to do the same task. The supersonic Concorde proved that faster is not always better when it cost significantly more to move noticeably fewer people slightly faster than the new wide-body jets being designed at the same time. My final example can be found a lot closer to home for us in the mobile data industry. Windows Mobile is probably still the most technologically advanced mobile operating system available. In fact, many of the iPhone’s latest achievements and distant dreams (Skype over 3G, streaming media and video calls) premiered on Windows Mobile devices years ago.

So, what does this have to do with Flash, HTML5 and the future of mobile browsing? Nothing . . . yet.

Internet enabled refrigerators, the Concorde, and Windows Mobile 6 were all seen as technological leaps forward at the time they were introduced. The problem is that the user’s needs did not require these technological improvements in order to be met. The “smart refrigerator” was done in by the status quo; the pen and paper it hoped to replace. The Concorde was done in by failing to understand who their real customer was, the airlines, not the passengers. Windows Mobile was done in by over-engineering when customers wanted a phone that did not require a degree in engineering to operate.

. . . we are doomed to repeat.

The Status Quo

Outside of the tech savvy people we all tend to hang out with, most users don’t know what they don’t have. Most phones have a YouTube player, can stream media from many sources and have thousands of games to choose from. While Flash and HTML5 will make life easier for the developers, no one has created the need in the customer’s mind yet.

The Real Customer

The answer to this is still a bit foggy to me, which is why I worry. Who is Flash and HTML5 aimed at in the mobile ecosystem? I can see them making life easier for developers, yet the lack of platform standards (Apple vs. Adobe) is seriously undercutting this advantage. They should help manufacturers and carriers deliver more value, but so far neither has told the consumers what that added value will be. As stated in The Status Quo, no one has even begun to sell this to the end-user, so it is hard to believe that they are even being considered as potential customers.


Lastly, I am faced with the question of advancement versus necessity. While I have not seen a single survey, study or report that says that the end-users want Flash or HTML5, they seem to be interested in a richer and faster web experience on their phones. The more I think about this, the more I think that Henry Ford’s approach to technological advancement is right. "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse." I’m afraid that a “richer” media experience may be the mobile web’s equivalent to a faster horse.

The Future

If Flash and HTML5 are indeed the faster horse, who is going to invent the car? Harvard business professor, Clayton Christensen points out that truly innovative products enter the market from beneath the entrenched products. Mini computers aren’t as powerful as mainframe computers; PCs aren’t as powerful as minis; laptops aren’t as powerful as PCs and smartphones aren’t as powerful as laptops. Yet, each of these evolutionary steps in computing displaced its predecessor. Why? Because convenience trumps power in the mass market. Today, Smartphones are the number one selling computing device around the world because they are more convenient for everyday tasks, not because they are more powerful. I think web developers and designers should keep this in mind as they plan for the future of mobile browsing. While there will always be a fraction of every industry that continues to push the technological envelope, consumers will eventually opt for convenience over power. If you don’t believe me, let’s return to the example set by Windows Mobile. Windows Mobile was the pre-eminent mobile platform for a decade. Every new model had a faster processor, better screen resolution, more features and more applications. Yet, as the platform evolved, it got bloated with features and functions that consumers didn’t need, or worse, got in the way of a convenient mobile experience.

I can’t say that Flash and HTML5 will be the beginning of the end for the mobile web. I won’t know that for many years. What I can tell you is that the time is right for someone to disrupt the relatively consistent evolution of the mobile web experience. While technological advancement requires us to look forward, survival does require us to look over our shoulder every now and then.

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