Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The obligatory 3.0 post: this time with added You-nicorn

Does it strike anyone else as odd, that just a few months after Time celebrates a new era of the empowered You, most of the chatter about the next great leap - that some are calling Web3.0 - is a paradigm shift for technology (namely the arrival of the semantic web), not the end user?
The what is web3.0? question has been stewing in my mind for a bit, and like many jargon-weary commentators I thought it best to ignore it and hope the urge would pass, since fluff to the power of fluff is just more fluff. But then the excellent and deeply credible R/WW kicked off this (tongue in cheek?) competition, so I might as well dump the contents of my 3.0 cache here for the record.
Basically, if I had to assign a numerical framework for the evolution of the web, what I'd do would be something like this:

Web1.0: Brain & Eyes (=Information)

Web2.0: Brain, Eyes, Ears, Voice & Heart (=Passion)

Web3.0: Brain, Eyes, Ears, Voice, Heart, Arms & Legs (=Freedom)

I would try and map the evolution of the web to the increasing benefits to the individual. The first breakthrough paradigm enabled by the web was information, the second was passion, the third - I would like to suggest, is freedom in the physical sense - aka mobility. In Maslowian terms, throw in a bit of food and sex, and you're basically done.
1.0 was about accessing information
From the individual's perspective, the web has progressively been about genuinely empowering them to do more and more with the things they care about. 1.0 provided the web as a disintermediater - where information was the novelty, and most of it happened to be in static text and graphic form. 1.0 was about knowing that a price is cheaper on Expedia than on the BA site, or reading about human rights abuses in China. The 1.0 poster children (eBay, Google, Amazon, Expedia and Wikipedia) allowed people to connect them with what they were interested in - such as cheap stuff and tough questions.
2.0 was about finding your passion
The arrival of You on the scene is not a passing fad. The web has always been about You, the only thing was that the You in 1.0 was deaf, mute and immobile. In 2.0 the gag came off. We started to sing, shout, dance and generally make a mockery of How Things Should Be Done. 2.0 represented another leap forward in terms of making our lives better. Bandwidths increased, allowing music then video to flow (with copyright spinning in the wind). Software and services became easier to use and companies such as mine made it easier to create and distribute content. Social networking sites allowed niche passions to connect with each other. The result is the individuals themselves started to have more fun, more sex, more life. They could perform for millions - anybody who's ever had the buzz of being on stage and adored by thousands knows how good that feels. (Apparently an Oscar nomination adds four years to your life.) YouTube has made people stars - made them sing dance, cavort, laugh, cry. Colour arrived to the binary, command-line network of networks. My simple suggestion for world peace is to play the Kiwi and Mocha videos on a big screen at the beginning of every UN security council meeting.
So, with the added emotion in our lives from the second version of the web we're really starting to be convinced that these tech guys actually are good news. Just when we're working ourselves up into a frenzy of excitement about what could be even bigger, even better for us and indeed be the Next Big Thing, along comes an old fashioned committee and tells us that the future is about resource description frameworks, web ontology language and, of course, XML.
Semantics is to Web 3.0 what horseshoes are to a unicorn
Sure, getting data to talk to data is an important step but to me it is plumbing. "WOW, you've got a flying horse, that's absolutely freaking, bloody amazing, I love it!!" is the refrain I'd like to hear as I tell people what I'm working on. Not, "A-ha, look at these nicely roughly circular, sturdy iron protective elements on the feet of the horse, I bet they're useful when it lands".
To be asked to imagine a future vision of where the web is going, and then be told that any vision is fine as long as it is semantic is rather claustrophobic. There is nobody on the planet that I think more deserving of unlimited wealth, chocolate and a permanent serenade by a chorus of angels than Tim Berners-Lee (despite him turning down our invitation to the Nokia Speaker Series when he collected his $1m cheque). However this necessary plumbing is not a sexy vision that will sell to our respective parents and kids. And as we know, sex sells.
We in the tech industry seem to be slipping back, like incurable alcoholics, to the bad habits of focusing on the technology and not the benefits of what is coming next. Of course, we know that it'd be great if microformats actually worked, and people could get more joined up services, but frankly, most of the benefits seem rather marginal compared to what we're able to do now. It's hard to package and sell it to Average Joe. For example, Wikipedia suggests as a use case that "a computer might be instructed to list the prices of flat screen HDTVs larger than 40 inches with 1080p resolution at shops in the nearest town that are open until 8pm on Tuesday evenings". Hmmm, anybody spot a geek in the vicinity? This would probably be to Joe just an incremental improvement in Google's already fabulous problem-solving offering. And also, it neglects that fact that people would probably still trust the recommendation of their friend over any semantic goodness. Digitizing relationships and reputations has proven to be particularly challenging.

3.0 will be about finding your legs, and your wings
So, 3.0 to me is more about taking what we had so far and extending the reach - both physically in terms of another dimension, but also in terms of imagination. Letting you do what you do today on the web but when you're mobile is the first necessary step - table stakes - for this, and for that we have browsers, widg/sets and AJAX integration. But a lot of that is not new innovation, just necessary replication. What I'm looking for in 3.0 is the truly breakthrough user experiences that hit you in the stomach, the way that using Google did the first time you used it, or the way that Mocha's little legs wiggled in a furry flurry of happiness. That I can safely say is not shrinking today's internet service du jour and putting it on the small screen, but using the vast amounts of new data sources in innovative ways to create new and improved experiences. Mobile social networking, avatars, maps, mashups, music, marketing and The Man will all I suspect play a part in building this. We've got some pretty cool ideas but part of the fun is not knowing what services will prove to be the most successful.
This is in essence the point of this blog - it's ThreeDimensionalPeople, people. Add a third dimension (and a fourth, courtesy of RSS) and the possibilities for innovation multiply. Unfortunately, some parts of the telco industry seems unable to allow the speed and scope of innovation required, so it will be provided in due time by others many of whom are both willing and able.
So in summary, I think we need our politicians, business people, relatives, academics and shop floor workers to get behind our vision for where we're going next and get excited about the possibilities about what it can do for them. Sure, the €100bn orgy of excess of 3G was painful, but just because one entire industry collectively overpaid, overpromised and underdelivered on a set of mistaken assumptions has nothing to do with the reality of what an Internet set free of wires could become. The mobile device plus the Internet has the potential to revolutionize our lives in ways that we haven't begun to dream about, and I suggest, deserves significantly more attention from our entrepreneurs and thought leaders who are striving to build new new things, whether they come with a number attached or not.

Man, I wonder how much they'd be making without that pesky Internet?

The current issue of Booz Allen's Strategy & Business magazine contains some interesting data points - salutory reading for those who might think that the web has dismembered industry as we know it:

Companies are sitting on mountains of cash, much more than they need. Holdings
at NYSE- and Nasdaq-listed companies topped a record $2.7 trillion in 2005, and
they are growing at 24 percent annually. By industry, the largest cash increases
in the past decade were in media (1,700 percent), utilities (1,360 percent), and
telecommunications (1,300 percent).

Monday, April 23, 2007

Some principles for good data management

As companies around the world wake up to the new reality that the web flattens the playing field and offers more choices for people than they had before, there is realization that being customer-centric is probably a Good Thing. The next logical conclusion therefore it seems is the need to amass vast mounds of data about their customers, mine it every which way and that, in order to better understand people's behaviour. This has been fuelled by a Google paranoia, in which companies tremble if they don't have a data centre the size of Kansas tracking every possible thing that you, me, and them could, would, should, or might do sometime, yesterday or tomorrow.

My concern is that, as with the environement, the real costs of data collection and not externalized, and so business and governments have little incentive to act responsibly with this data. In addition to my suggestion that the provider is rarely compensated adequately for the potentially interesting uses of their data, the costs of storage continue to plummet, resulting in a simple equation for most managers - grab as much data as you can and hang on to it.

In Europe, data collection has been a hot-button issue for a while with more stringent safeguards on collecting and protecting user data than in the US. (I remember during my time working at Siebel an 'interesting' meeting between one of our more assertive West coast salesmen and an official from a French ministry. The concept of the CRM system that this hapless salesman was attempting to foist on the French government to better manage their citizenry was, we were told in no uncertain terms - illegal. It is against the law in France for this government department to share data on citizens with another department. Clearly, not great news for the efficiency levels and problem solving abilities of the French bureaucrats, and not great for the salesman.) Anyway, if there's money to be made, savvy business people will gravitate to the least cost option, so probably base their policies in the most amenable jurisdictions.

This to say that there should probably be some principles or code of conduct, to use a phrase du jour, for how companies manage their customer data. Kim Cameron's laws of identity seem to be the gold standard here, and are rather related, but not the same.

In conversation recently with a smart chap at one of the great British institutitions (didn't tell him I would blog it, so won't say which one), he outlined his principles about data collection that their organization uses. I noted them down rather quickly, and here is the list (a bit mangled as I'm taking a bit of translator's license here).

  1. Ownership: The data about the user is owned by the individual, and companies are able to borrow it and use it to provide better services for the user, while they have a relationship with that user.
  2. Minimum: Only collect the minimal data required to deliver certain functions: i.e. "just in time not just in case". So a vendor only needs to collect enough data to know that you have enough money to pay for the goods, and they don't need to hang on to it when you're gone.
  3. Modular: The service doesn't need to have an all-or-nothing approach to data for it to work -- the data can be separated and functional with different uses.
  4. Tradeable: Data can be used to interact with other services, if you have agreed that it can be shared with them to improve your service. Clearly, generic data such as location has multiple uses, whereas specific proprietary application data has more limited uses.
  5. Tangible: It is clear what impact your data has on the system, and whether it's being used to impact the service level that you're receiving.
  6. Extractable: You can remove all elements of your data from their system. This is something that Google is apparently doing, which I think is tremendous. Like their search engine, they are happy to send people away, not try and hang onto them if they don't want to be there.

I'd be interested to see other principles relating to good data management - this is now the time to shape people's opinions towards what is still a rather abstract issue, but which is increasingly becoming the cause for debate. And profits.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Three out of four kids would like targeted ads on their mobile

Tomi T. A. points to an interesting recent finding.

Q Research is reported in this week's issue of New Media Age (April 19, 2007)
with a survey of 1,500 UK youth aged 11 - 20. When asked simply - do you
accept ads to your mobile, the survey found 32% willing to
accept. Then when asked - would the youth be willing to accept ads that are
about their areas of interest, this jumps to 71%. Then, when
asked if the ads offer discounts and coupons, it goes up again, to 76%. And finally - this is the eye-opener - if the youth
is asked if the ads would give them top-ups to their prepaid phone accounts, 84% say yes, such ads would be welcome...

Good news, but the real innovators in this space are not waiting for validation before they take ideas that they think are good enough to the market. I think it's time for these discussions to move from the theoretical to the practical.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Nokia Beta Labs soft launch

Today is the soft launch of our very own Beta Labs - a place to test our new applications and services. Kind of strange that we've not had a place for betas in the past, but I guess it's further evidence of our gradual move from products ("Here you go, it works ok") to services ("How we can get this to be even better?").

Just a few apps to start with, but am happy to see that they're suitably "3dpeople compatible": for example mobile codes lets you create bar codes to build that real world - digital world overlay, and sports tracker is all about getting people up and active. The main thing is that we now have a place to go to test new internet services, get feedback and start a discussion. Plenty of improvement ideas are in the pipeline, and the key one for me will be to build up a sense of community of Nokia early adopters and use them as lead innovators to help us know what we should be working on next.

S60 introduces web widgets

S60 has just launched web widgets. The Web Run-Time which allows the use of web widgets using standard web technologies - e.g. AJAX on the mobile and no separate download. This is one of the ways that the web makes more sense on the mobile than just slavishly trying to shrink the PC web interface.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Peter Kim picks up on Lester Wunderman's comments at this week's Forrester Marketing Forum:

    • We used to be in the business of direct marketing – now we’re in the
      business of relationship marketing.
    • We will eventually move on to personal marketing, which will be facilitated
      by the use of data.
    • Four goals for direct marketing: Relevance, relationship, repurchase,
      and retention.

Couldn't agree more, but how are the current marketing tools facilitating this? Email, SMS, MMS - not much of relationship there. Mobiles are of course deeply personal, are the broker of relationships, and throw off much more data (location, call history etc) than things with wires. So, an interesting question for me is "how to help companies use mobiles to improve their relationships with their customers?".

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

For society's sake, don't make those search engines too good

Dr. Helen picks up a profound quote: Men talk to their search engines more than their girlfriends, work colleagues or even their families. (And alas, this trend is set to continue - due to search engines being as smart as this, and as easy on the eye as this.) Search engines, like dogs, offer unquestioning loyalty, uncanny perception and an ability to sniff out the most obscure things. However when they move from the means to the ends, we've got a big problem.

On a related note, I had a good chat today with someone who must be one of the most networked people in the networking business (he has over 600 recommendations on LinkedIn, and comes 21st on this list): Thomas Power. (OK, so there's another Tom with as of today 170m 'friends', but they're just kids, damnit). One of the interesting things Tomas P. said, and something he's based his career on, is that the abundance of digital communications and networking is actually paradoxically making many people lonelier. There's a real need to help people get up, out of their chair, and into the real world. That I guess is one of the messages of this blog, and happily it fits nicely into Nokia's remit too.

And so here's a free business idea for Google (as if they need my charity): Allow wives and girlfriends to buy the right hand column on their partners' screens. Maybe something like a flashing "Come to bed!!" would remind the unremitting Googlers what the phrase I'm feeling lucky used to mean.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

From advertising to a direct dialogue with customers. Are you ready?

This note is aimed at brand owners, frustrated by the increasingly expensive and ineffectual advertising spending on traditional media and wondering how best they can get their message out. It suggests that today's disrupted media business is too frail to support the demands of brands wanting to advertise. This is no bad thing in itself because the advertising business itself is bloated, inefficient and outdated, and companies would be better off figuring out how to interact with and delight their current customers, rather than wasting money on trying to reach and influence non-customers.

Advertising heal thyself
Today’s advertising business is suffering from (at least) two major flaws. The first is the industry that the traditional media business can no longer offer an economically viable channel to allow brands to deliver their messages to a sizable captive audience. The second - bigger - challenge is that the concept of advertising is becoming less relevant in today's flat-earth world.

Challenge one: the advertising industry is overly reliant on a lame and enfeebled media business
The “traditional” media industry is fragmented, broken, confused and failing to deliver on one of its major tasks - to help brands reach people. (If you don't agree with this, read Bob Garfield's Chaos Scenario before reading on.) The media machine that is pulling the advertising load is to put it bluntly, knackered. Reaching non-customers is getting harder due to a proliferation of alternative media channels and consumer-side filters. Cheap tools and the Web as a distribution platform for connecting people allows anyone to be a broadcaster (or podcaster) resulting in massive fragmentation. Reaching 80% of US TV viewers used to require placing adverts on just four shows in the 1960s, today it would take over 100. Those who are 'formerly known as consumers' employ both hardware (e.g. DVR) and software (e.g. RSS) filters to give them control. Forrester says that 92% of people skip ads on DVRs, and half of US households are expected to have them by 2010. Ironically, brands have until recently been forced into paying ever more for in "upfront" fees for broadcast slots on US TV networks, simply because there was no other place for them to put their money. No wonder P&G's Jim Stengell says, "I truly believe, and I know many of you do, that today's marketing model is broken."

Further complicating the picture is the reality of “media multitasking” – no more the whole family sitting rapt around a television set or radio – today’s audience (kids in particular) will be IM-ing and gaming at the same time as watching TV and listening to the radio or podcasts. This plays havoc with those already creaky viewer figures. The result of this is that some brands are getting desperate, and “outsourcing” their brand to celebrities of various ilks, but these can be crushingly expensive and more importantly, unpredictable and prone to embarrassing PR gaffes.

Beware the siren calls of the search engines

So if traditional media is broken, how about the new media experience? Internet advertising is growing rapidly as advertisers move their money towards where people are spending their time. UK ad spending – up 40% year on year, now accounts for 10% of total advertising spend, and is typical of the trends here. Several flagship advertisers are now massively increasingly their online spending this year and scaling back TV spend. And happily for the brands looking for simplicity, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft account for a lot of the internet traffic, and claim the vast majority (appx 80%) of online ad spending.

So surely search engine marketing provides salvation for brands fed up with the old media offerings? Well, not really for a number of reasons. First, there's a long way to go before the demographics overlap - PC penetration is not TV penetration, in particular in the key markets of China and India. Second, the model itself has flaws – industry experts suggest that click fraud can account for up to 30% of revenues. Third, bidding on competitors’ keywords is now rampant and resulting in spiralling costs (though this practice is probably one class-action suit away from being history). And fourth, just when brands had been extracting themselves from a reliance on an expensive media middleman, the emergence of search engine as intermediary will cost them dear. Overall however, is the issue that search engines are still intended to deliver advertising messages to non-customers and attract them to become customers. Here’s the second major flaw in the advertising industry's model:

Challenge two: advertising itself is an increasingly outmoded concept
The second major challenge facing the industry is that advertising itself is an increasingly outdated concept in today’s transparent and connected marketplace. Influencing prospective customers is ever harder; people are increasingly immune and sceptical to the battering of thousands of commercial messages. Typical of the ennui in the market, the ad agency WPP found that nearly a quarter of US ‘baby-boomers’ are insulted by the advertising messages that companies are sending them. The emerging Generation C reject marketing gimmicks (and can smell astroturfing a mile away). They make purchase decisions based on their trusted advisors and require transparency from the companies they deal with. People it seems, now generally prefer word of mouth to word of the Man.

Consider how Barrons defines advertising: a “paid form of a nonpersonal message communicated through the various media by industry, business firms, nonprofit organizations, or individuals.” These concepts seem outdated – advertising, we are told, should be about a bunch of things which the web is making redundant: in particular paying intermediaries a lot of money for the job that you could be doing better yourself. The new opportunities of free, personalized two-way communication delivered directly to users sounds more like blogs and community forums. As Bob Garfield points out, the head marketer at P&G puts it like this: "What we really need is a mind-set shift, a mind-set shift that will make us relevant to today's consumers, a mind-set shift from 'telling and selling' to building relationships."

Forget non-customers – turn existing customers into your new sales force
So with the advertising channel broken, and the approach itself increasingly irrelevant, where next for brands trying to get the message out about their products? At issue is the need to refocus attention from advertising to non-customers to serving current customers better. Sounds obvious? If so, why aren’t more companies doing it? Making great products, informing, interacting with and delighting their existing customers, rather than prospecting for hard to reach non-customers should be the new priorities. In an increasingly confused consumer maelstrom, advertising to people who are not your customer still serves some purposes – brand recognition, credibility (wow, that startup can afford a SuperBowl ad!?) and general feel good.

Fine, but when it comes to shifting products off the shelves, getting product feedback and innovation suggestions, the relationship of business value to customer intimacy is I would propose, strongly positive, something like this:

The key here is how to meet the needs of a more engaged customer base without incurring massive costs or raising expectations. Creating and fostering an open dialogue with customers is a daunting but necessary exercise. This is one of my pet topics, and there's not enough room to expand at length here, but at a high level, I'd suggest the following elements to achieve this within a reasonable time and cost scale (presuming that you've already got a great product to get excited about):

  • Make every employee an ambassador. This requires creating a mindset within the company that emphasizes openness, collaboration, speed and employee problem-ownership (presuming they're the relevant experts). It's also about installing tools such as wikis (shameless plug...) so that individuals not only feel empowered but are empowered to collaborate with others and take the initiative themseles. All the better for reacting when you...
  • Engage in direct dialogue with customers. Interacting with customers directly, for example allowing them to subscribe to web-based feeds of product news and releases. The use of syndication (RSS, Atom etc) makes dialogue an asynchronous and therefore more manageable process - this is not about giving the CEO's mobile number out to every customer. Well managed, honest external blogs are useful tools for smooth information dissemination that arguably fulfills the role of what advertising used to do. An even easier way to foster dialogue is then to...
  • Facilitate customer-to-customer dialogue. Forums and chat rooms are great examples here - apparently over 30% of HP Europe's customer queries are answered by the Q&A from message boards. Being a fly on the wall to these discussions is important, even if they're not on your own sites - tools such as technorati allow Dell to search for phrases such as Dell Hell on blogs and join the discussion if necessary.

These activities are now pretty much table stakes in the move from being a company that just doesn't get it to one engaged and benefitting from a richer dialogue with current customers. Of course, there will always be room for some old world advertising - somebody has to spend the expense accounts after all. But it may be a worthwhile exercise to look at your company and ask where along the scale between "advertising to non-customers" or "conversations with current customers" they're sitting, and whether they're moving in the right direction.

The final point, which takes us beyond table stakes and into the realms of the Truly Interesting, relates to the eventual primacy of the mobile rather than the PC as the way to interact with the web. I would dearly like to see a new mobile marketing paradigm that allows the mobile to be the platform to allow companies to carry out ongoing conversations with their customers. Mobile devices are the natural interfaces for receiving filtered and tailored customized subscription information from companies that interest then. Note, this is not advertising as we currently understand it; it does not involve any use of the hackneyed “30 cents off a Starbucks” cliché. And it certainly is not about unsolicited spam. It would be a foolish company that abuses extraordinarily intimate relationship that the mobile device can deliver.

No, this is marketing, or more accurately – business as usual. We used to talk about ‘Internet companies’ – but that now seems quaint, as we recognize that the Internet is embedded into every facet of a company’s operations and their customers similarly expect to use the web to carry on conversations with the company. I’m looking forward to a time when brands are able to dramatically improve the quality of service they deliver to their customers rather than wasting money on inefficient advertising campaigns, and they incidentally will use an internet-enabled mobile device as the mechanism for this.

So, in summary, the media business is in turmoil, but the future for brands is not to simply take their old advertising approach over to the Internet. Instead, the smart companies will recognize the need to shift their focus from non customers to current customers, and harness the power of the Web to deliver a personalized, direct interactive dialogue with customers, and then to start thinking about what that personalized, intimate experience would look like on the mobile platform.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Nokia hosts a mobile mashup in the Valley

Good to see this happening - an invite only event for Mobile2.0 movers and shakers in Silicon Valley on April 24:

Come ready to experience new, revolutionary solutions through various emerging technology demos from the Palo Alto-based Nokia Research Center, exciting third parties, and emerging start-ups in a "fast pitch" environment. Attend the 2007 Mobile Mash-Up and explore new products, services and ideas with Nokia executives as well as network with more than one hundred industry leaders in Silicon Valley

More attention, energy and executives' time is being spent in the Valley nowadays, and our new research center office there is helping to raise our presence. Am planning to attend - if any readers of this blog are planning to attend, let me know. Should be a interesting day.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Easter fun time: Ask Nokia...

I think Brad Feld's doing a great job at demystifying the somewhat perplexing aura of the VC world; today's post is a case in point. I guess some people have similar questions about Nokia - since we're not always as open as we could be. So, as we break for Easter, how about a small a small experiment in openness as a reward to my loyal readers. Ask a Nokia related question as a comment to this post and I'll try and do my best to find the right person in Nokia to answer it, and post the answer as a future post - if both question and answer are interesting...
No guarantees or refunds, and rather depends on the quality of the questions, and not expecting much about the standard off-limits stuff (future product releases, financials etc) which will just get boring answers. Of interest?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Flickr as a conversation

As numerous people have observed, Flickr (and other publish & subscribe photo services) can be thought of a subtle communication channel, not just content. Indeed, the fact that Nokia's core competence of connecting people is now carried out by just about anybody with an IP connection, a dollop of good looking code and an ounce of entrepreneurial flair is a well recognized challenge in the corridors of Espoo and minds of our execs (, shouldn't that be 'opportunity'? - Ed) .
Pictures are indeed worth thousands of words, but also (enter quantum theory for the first time on this blog) each interpretation is different depending on the observer. The same picture can have multiple meanings depending on the personal communication history with individual viewers. So if someone posts a pic of themselves with someone of the opposite sex looking like they're having fun on holiday, it could be an innocent postcard to colleagues, a look-at-me message to their friends, a screw-you to an ex and / or a don't disturb me am on holiday to any casual ('Flickr friends') who might be thinking of suggesting a beer down the pub. Many layers. Arguably written or spoken words can have multiple meanings (and I say this as an oft-misunderstood Brit), but the possibilities for nuance with rich media seem greater.
One the opposite extreme, I just saw this message below. Its novelty and abuptness stopped me in my tracks - like someone shouting in a library. Normally I would expect to see direct communication morph into indirect: kids sending empty texts, abstract images or dialling numbers then hanging up; hacking traditional channels. Here we are seeing direct communication enter by the back door - I wonder if there are other indirect communication channels that have become direct ones? Anyway, hack away Flickr users, and show us even more ways to communicate!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Sonopia: a hammer to crack a nut?

I was excited when I heard about Juha Christensen's new outfit - Sonopia. He's got a track record for thinking big, knows mobile inside out and this play is in the sweet spot for where the mobile meets the internet: creating and serving real life, not virtual, communities. Sonopia's mission is to "provide every organization, group or individual with the opportunity to create branded mobile service and build a unique mobile and web community of supporters and members". So the idea is that your community of interest becomes your (virtual) mobile service provider, and they take a cut out of your mobile phone bill. Given that few people care much for their mobile operators, you as a customer can then feel better about handing over wads of cash each month, as some of it goes to your favourite cause.

Exploring the communities on offer, I was intrigued by the Food to Go group in Northern California that is devoted to new dining experiences, and also tantalizingly offers the prospect of making friends and finding a dinner date. Food and relationships - sounds like the perfect community. I promptly joined the group, but since I'm not a US resident I couldn't really do very much with it. Nor could I, as a non-resident, set up my own group of worshippers and exhort my hordes of faithful acolytes to join up give me a slice of their monthly income. Shame really, as I'd always fancied leading a sect.
But I digress. Sonopia is a undeniably a bold and visionary move - a breath of fresh air into a space that has seen a lot of heat and not much light. My conceptual difficulty is wondering why the act of community affiliation - an ephemeral, will'o'the wisp flight of fancy, which can fluctuate like the summer breeze, is hard wired into the access and device offering. I can be a member of 100 of such groups, but will only want one mobile service provider. Surely this should be a services, not an access, play. OK, I can get a credit card from my university alumnii society, so why not a mobile phone plan? But what overlap does my interest in the worthy cause of saving the tuna have towards my mobility service needs? Are they somehow different from someone who wants to save the dolphin?

The initial motivation for Sonopia, according to their website is they "wanted the brands we really cared about to light up our mobile phones." If I'm interested in transport services I might engage a car company to provide me with an end to end solution that comes with seats, wheels and an engine. I might express my affiliation with the tuna lovers of the world by sticking on a wittily ironic bumper sticker, or having a pair of fluffy tuna hanging from my rearview mirror. But would I want the gear stick to be tuna-shaped? The steering wheel to be covered in the skin of unliberated tunas? Maybe, but the market size of this niche is rapidly diminishing to the sub-micro, and the handful of people with such passionate affiliations are probably serving time at her majesty's pleasure.
Maybe the job of passion and relationships is one for the top of the stack, something like this.

So, I applaud the concept to the extent that this is a canary in the coal mine for micro-segmentation of an end-to-end mobile experience bundle that can be tailored to specific groups, and that it shamelessly offers tangible benefits to community owners to act as a distributed sales force helping Sonopia to sell more minutes on behalf of Verizon and keep a cut. However, to me, community services are best managed at the higher level of abstraction - separating the tasks of providing connectivity with those of providing community. Given that more middlemen inevitably mean more people fighting for a margin out of each of your communication events, maybe if you do want to give money to a good cause, you'd be better off just sending them a cheque?