Category Archives: mobile

Can the iPhone hit crucial network density for noticable cluster effects?

On Friday morning, I was shocked to find my always-empty neighborhood AT&T store host to a long line of iPhone cravers. What shocked me even more was that the diverse group didn’t look like typical Apple consumers. They sold out quickly and are still sold out. I remarked on this to the cab driver and he smiled and raised his Gen 1 iPhone, telling me that his cousin wanted him to borrow it for a few days to convince him to get one. His cousin thought it would completely change what it meant to be a cab driver in LA. Not only would it give real-time traffic info but it would let him know where his fellow cab friends were with ease. My driver was starting to agree with his cousin (who should definitely be earning commission for his iPhone sale).

I had never thought about the cab driver case. Cab drivers in my city are always so excited to see a familiar face on the road and they wave enthusiastically. Those who hang out at the airport have strong networks of fellow cab drivers who wait with them. While they’re always tethered to their company, the iPhone would let them connect to one another all day long. I could just see the joy in this driver’s face as he imagined when he’d be able to look at the screen and see all of his friends on the map buzzing around the city alongside dots telling him which surface streets to avoid.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this launch in the hopes that it might show the power of cluster effects wrt mobile phones. Cluster effects describe the emergent practices that occur when the density of infrastructure adoption in a social network reaches a critical tipping point. In other words, cluster effects are the cool things that people do when all of their friends can do the same things. We take cluster effects for granted in the Internet space because, by and large, entire friend groups can jump onto a computer, grab a browser, and login to a website. In terms of clusters, the barriers to Facebook or MySpace are more personal than infrastructural. (Those who lack general access tend to have friends who lack access.) Mobile phones are different. Even if all of my friends have a Nokia N95, the likelihood that we’re all on the same carrier with the same plan is next to null. The result is that I can’t install an app onto my phone and expect all of my friends to be able to play along. This kills mobile social software from the getgo.

So far, there have been few examples of dense mobile adoption platforms. There’s the Crackberry, but that audience isn’t exactly the most innovatively social. The Sidekick was impressive amongst deaf communities and urban youth, but T-Mobile managed to lock that puppy down so heavily that no innovative practices really emerged. Still, if you look at the AIM usage in those clusters, you get a good indicator of the potential. And that’s all folks.

The iPhone has the best chance of hitting that tipping point of anything out there. For the most part, everyone is stuck on AT&T. And everyone gets a data plan. And the phone is semi-open. The price is still out of reach for most high schoolers who rely on parental pass-me-downs, but it has a decent chance of hitting other clusters. I was banking on urban 20-somethings, but I love the idea of it hitting cab driver clusters.

Right now, a phone is primarily a 1-1 communication device and, if you’re lucky, an information access device and a portal to the web. Interesting things can happen when the mobile is a platform itself. In other words, when you can assume that everyone around you has the same tool, you can start doing networked activities that don’t rely on a website. Cluster effects in mobile will be what happens when the LCD is not texting. From there, you can innovate. Sure, we’re going to see a plethora of mobile social network sites and mobile location friend services and mobile dating and mobile media sharing communities. The first wave will always be a translation of the web. But once you have cluster effects, you can also start innovating and finding new services and tools that allow people to connect in meaningful way. New games can emerge. New social services. Innovation in this space will be iterative – it will involve throwing things out to the market and seeing what consumers do and do not do. It will require iterating based on their practices and not trying to shove those curvy creatures into square holes. But there’s no point in leaving the starting block until cluster effects are underway because, sadly, iterating in imagination land inevitably leads to techno-utopian fantasies instead of meaningful applications.

Gosh do I want to see cluster effects triggered in mobile space. There’s such great potential for interesting things to take place. Sure, I’d rather see it take place on open platforms and open networks. And I am a bit worried that, without openness, we’re going to see some not-so-good side effects. I definitely share Zittrain’s fear of non-generative technologies. But part of me would rather fucked up market effects trigger cluster effects instead of governmental decrees. We all know that something has to break in mobile somewhere sometime soon. Our options are limited. Option 1: all carriers and handset makers need to start playing along. Option 2: some combination of handset/carrier triggers massive adoption. Option 3: municipal wifi emerges, allowing the web to serve as a temporary bridge. Option 4: governmental intervention demands platform infrastructure. These options all have downsides… Option 1 is a pipedream. Option 2 creates a monopoly risk. Option 3 will take a long time to unfold and still requires handset compatibility. Option 4 is more realistic in some countries than others.

Anyhow, there’s a decent chance that Apple & AT&T will screw this one up, but they have the best chance to hit Option 2 right now. And really, I’m bored. And I want a new phenomenon to study. And I want to see what happens when people can do weird and interesting mobile-based social stuff. I’m especially curious how this might affect mobile-centric populations, although that’s still a ways off. But yeah, possibility is in the air.

So…. AT&T, Apple, and Market Research Firms: I strongly encourage that you watch the network density of iPhone adoption. (Note: raw numbers don’t matter… you want density of adoption amongst pre-existing friend groups.) If there’s anything you can do to encourage network density, you won’t regret it. If you can tip full clusters to the same platform with all-you-can-eat plans, you can launch all sorts of interesting things that will fundamentally alter practice and change the mobile landscape. Please don’t screw it up.

Palestinian girls, dating, and the mobile phone

Last fall, Hiyam Hijazi-Omari and Rivka Ribak presented a paper called “Playing With Fire: On the domestication of the mobile phone among Palestinian teenage girls in Israel” at AOIR. They studied teen girls who received their mobile phones from their boyfriends and hid them from everyone else. Through this lens, they examine how the mobile phone alters social dynamics, relationships, and the construction of gender in Palestine. In short, they document how culturally specific gendered practices (not technological features) frame the meaning and value of technology.

All too often, we think of technology as empowering or restricting. We focus on the technology and its features rather than the ways in which it gets embedded in the lives of people. The phone has always been a gendered technology. (If you have any doubts, read Claude Fischer’s “America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940.”) While the story of the mobile is quite different, even the tensions between its use as a business tool and its use as a tool for family communications have been narrated through the lens of gender.

Palestinian boys give their girlfriends phones for the express purpose of being able to communicate with them in a semi-private manner without the physical proximity that would be frowned on. At the same time, girls know that parents do not approve of them having access to such private encounters with boys – they go to great lengths to hide their mobiles and suffer consequences when they are found out. While the boys offered these phones as a tool of freedom, they often came with a price. Girls were expected to only communicate with the boy and never use the phone for any other purpose. In the article, Hijazi-Omari and Ribak quote one girl as expressing frustration over this and saying “I did not escape prison only to find myself another prison.” These girls develop fascinating practices around using the phone, hiding from people, and acquiring calling cards.

For teens, the mobile phone is a key device for negotiating intimate relations throughout the world. Studies done in the U.S., Jamaica, Japan, the U.K. and elsewhere all point to the ways in which teens negotiate private relationships using their mobiles. Mobiles are a critical tool for being in a relationship. Yet, most of our studies focus on the ways in which offline intimacies are extended across space and time through the mobile. What Hijazi-Omari and Ribak are finding with Palestinian girls is that the mobile is allowing them to have private encounters and relationships when these would be otherwise impossible.

This article helps elucidate the ways in which youth from different cultures are navigating social relations through the mobile. It is well-written and filled to the brim with fascinating data that tickles the brain. A must read for anyone interested in cultural difference involving the mobile!

gluttonous texting

For peculiar business reasons, Americans and Canadians have historically paid to receive text messages (although much of Canada has shifted away from this). This creates a stilted social dynamic whereby a friend forces you to pay $.10 (or use up a precious token msg in your plan) simply by deciding to send you something. You have no choice. There’s no blocking, no opt-out. Direct to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Needless to say, this alters the culture of texting. From the getgo, Americans have been very cautious about texting. To be on the safe side, many Americans did not add texting to their plan so sending a text message was often futile because it was never clear if a text message would be received by the phone in question or just disappear into the ether. Slowly, mobile users figured out who had SMS and who didn’t, but they were still super cautious about sending messages. It just felt rude, or wrong, or risky.

Teens, of course, never had this filter. They were perfectly happy to text. So much so that their parents refused to get them plans that supported it because, not surprisingly, there were all sorts of horror stories about teens who had texted up $700 phone bills. Sure enough, every family that I spoke with told me their version of the horror story and. In the U.S., we don’t have pay-as-you-go so going over minutes or texts just gets added to your monthly bill. If you’re not careful, that bill can get mighty costly. Unable to declare a max cost upfront, parents have been tremendously wary of teen texting simply for economic costs (although the occasional predator or cheating-in-school scare story does surface). Slowly, things have turned around, primarily with the introduction of cheap all-you-can-eat text messaging plans (and those that are so ridiculously high that it’s hard to go over). Once the barrier to participation is dropped, sending and receiving text messages switches from being potentially traumatic to outright fun. What a difference those plans make in user practice. The brick leash suddenly turns into an extension of the thumb for negotiating full-time intimate communities.

I’m fascinated by how U.S. teens build intricate models of which friends are available via mobile and which aren’t. Teens know who is on what plan, who can be called after 7PM, who can be called after 9PM, who can receive texts, who is over their texting for the month, etc. It’s part of their mental model of their social network and knowing this is a core exchange of friendship.

Psychologically, all-you-can-eat plans change everything. Rather than having to mentally calculate the number of texts sent and received (because the phones rarely do it for you and the carriers like to make that info obscure), a floodgate of opportunities is suddenly opened. The weights are lifted and freedom reigns. The result? Zero to a thousand text messages in under a month! Those on all-you-can-eat plans go hog wild. Every mundane thought is transmitted and the phones go buzz buzz buzz. Those with restrictive plans are treated with caution, left out of the fluid communication flow and brought in for more practical or content-filled purposes (or by sig others who ignore these norms and face the ire of parents).

All-you-can-eat plans are still relatively rare in Europe. For that matter, plans are relatively rare (while pay-as-you-go options were introduced in the U.S. relatively late and are not nearly as common as monthly plans). When a European youth runs out of texts and can’t afford to top up, they simply don’t text. But they can still receive texts without cost so they aren’t actually kept out of the loop; they just have to call to respond if they still have minutes or borrow a friend’s phone. What you see in Europe is a muffled fluidity of communication, comfortable but not excessive. As the U.S. goes from 0 to all-you-can-eat in one foul swoop, American texting culture is beginning to look quite different than what exists in Europe. Whenever I walk into a T-Mobile and ask who goes over their $10/1000 text message plan, the answer is uniform: “every teenager.” Rather than averaging a relatively conservative number of texts per month (like 200), gluttonous teen America is already on route to thousands of texts per month. They text like they IM, a practice mastered in middle school. Rather than sending a few messages a day, I’m seeing 20-50+. College students appear to text just as much as teens. Older users are less inclined to be so prolific, but maybe this is because they are far more accustomed to the onerous plans and never really developed a fluid texting practice while younger.

Whatever the case, it’s clear by comparing European and American practices that the economics of texting play a significant role in how this practice is adopted. It’s more than one’s individual plan too because there’s no point in texting if your friends can’t receive them. As we watch this play out, I can’t help but wonder about the stupidity of data plan implementation. Just last week, I went with my partner to AT&T to activate his Nokia N95. He was primed to add data to his plan because of the potential for the phone, but we both nearly had a heart attack when we learned that 4MB of data would cost $10 and unlimited would cost $70. We walked away without a data plan. More and more phones are data-enabled, but only the techno-elite are going to add such ridiculously costly plans. (And what on earth can you do with only 4MB?) It’s pretty clear that the carriers do not actually want you to use data. The story is even scarier in Europe with no unlimited options. Who actually wants to calculate how many MB a site might be and surf accordingly? And forget about social apps with uncontrollable data counts. There’s a lot to be said about paying to not having to actually worry about it. (an “open brand” lab project of Blyk)

Most people know that I study social network sites. Most people do not know that I’ve been tracking emergent mobile social practices. Or rather, waiting and watching. We all know about talking and texting, but to take the mobile to the next level, we need to develop applications that allow for social interaction at a mobile level. The problem is that there are huge barriers that make this darn near impossible. It’s not all about the carriers, but well, they do deserve a lot of the blame. More on that topic shortly…

As with my other research endeavors, I like to blog my observations and thoughts (otherwise known as blowing off steam). Luckily, as I was starting to put together some of my notes about what I wanted to say about mobile social youth practices, along came an opportunity. Blyk – a U.K.-based mobile network for the 16-24 market – has asked me and other researchers to blog about the intersection between mobile, youth, and consumer practices at a site called is an “open brand” lab project by the creators of Blyk. Just as “shift 6” equals “insert here” on your keyboard, is meant to pool ideas about what’s going on in a collaborative and productive way that is transparent and available to anyone who is interested in these issues. I am honored to get to blog alongside Alison Black (psychologist extrodinaire) and Inma Martinez (humanizer of technology), two researchers who are dedicated to understanding what it is that people actually do, as well as Marko Ahtisaari, one of the troublemakers behind Blyk who used to head design strategy at Nokia. I think that having this group blog will allow me to articulate what I’m observing in the mobile space in a collaborative and productive manner. And maybe make it useful to others.

I will cross-post many of my posts, but not all. So… if you are interested in mobile + youth + consumer practices, I recommend you add the feed to your reader. Besides, you wouldn’t want to miss any posts from the other esteemed bloggers. We’re just getting this project rolling, but expect to see a post per day or so on In the meantime, if you want to know more about why I’m invested in this project, I recommend checking out my first post: Changing the Rules for Mobile.

(PS: This also means that I will not stop blogging during my dissertation; blogging about mobile-social-youth will be a nice break for me as I write about American teens and publics.)

Tweet Tweet (some thoughts on Twitter)

SXSW has come and gone and my phone might never recover. Y’see, last year i received over 500 Dodgeballs. To the best that i can tell, i received something like 3000 Tweets during the few days i was in Austin. My phone was constantly hitting its 100 message cap and i spent more time trying to delete messages than reading them. Still, i think that Twitter and Dodgeball are interesting and i want to take a moment to consider their strengths and weaknesses as applications.

While you can use Dodgeball for a variety of things, it’s primarily a way of announcing presence in a social venue where you’d be willing to interact with other people. Given that i’m a hermit, i primarily use Dodgeball to announce my presence at conference outtings and to sigh in jealousy as people romp around Los Angeles. Dodgeball is culturally linked to place. I’m still pretty peeved with Google over the lack of development of Dodgeball because i still think it would be a brilliant campus-based application where people actually do party-hop on every weekend and want to know if their friends are at the neighboring frat party instead of this one. When it comes to usage at SXSW, Dodgeball is great. I know when 7 of my friends are in one venue and 11 are in another; it helps me decide where to go.

Twitter has taken a different path. It is primarily micro-blogging or group IMing or push away messaging. You write whatever you damn well please and it spams all of the people who agreed to be your friends. The biggest strength AND weakness of Twitter is that it works through your IM client (or Twitterrific) as well as your phone. This means that all of the tech people who spend far too much time bored on their laptops are spamming people at a constant rate. Ah, procrastination devices. If you follow all of your friends on your mobile, you’re in for a hellish (and every expensive) experience. Folks quickly learn to stop following people on their mobile (or, if they don’t, they turn Twitter off altogether). This, unfortunately, kills the mobile value of it, making it far more of a web tool than a mobile tool. Considering how much of a bitch it is to follow/unfollow people, users quickly choose and rarely turn back. Thus, once they stop following someone on their phone, they don’t return just because they are going out with that person that night (unless they run into them and choose to switch it on).

At SXSW, Twitter is fantastic for mobile. Everyone is running around the same town commenting on talks, remarking on venues, bitching about the rain. But dear god did i feel bad for the people who weren’t at SXSW who were getting spammed with that crap. One value of Twitter is that it’s really lightweight and easy. One problem is that this is terrible if your social world is not one giant cluster. While my tech friends who normally attend SXSW moped about how jealous they were upon receiving all of the SXSW messages, my non-tech friends were more of the WTF camp. Without segmentation, i had to choose one audience over the other because there was no way to move seamlessly between the audiences. Of course, groups are much heavier to manage. Still, i think it’s possible and i gave Ev some notes.

I think it’s funny to watch my tech geek friends adopt a social tech. They can’t imagine life without their fingers attached to a keyboard or where they didn’t have all-you-can-eat phone plans. More importantly, the vast majority of their friends are tech geeks too. And their social world is relatively structurally continuous. For most 20/30-somethings, this isn’t so. Work and social are generally separated and there are different friend groups that must be balanced in different ways.

Of course, the population whose social world is most like the tech geeks is the teens. This is why they have no problems with MySpace bulletins (which are quite similar to Twitter in many ways). The biggest challenge with teens is that they do not have all-you-can-eat phone plans. Over and over, the topic of number of text messages in one’s plan comes up. And my favorite pissed off bullying act that teens do involves ganging up to collectively spam someone so that they’ll go over their limit and get into trouble with their parents (phone companies don’t seem to let you block texts from particular numbers and of course you have to pay 10c per text you receive). This is particularly common when a nasty breakup occurs and i was surprised when i found out that switching phone numbers is the only real solution to this. Because most teens are not permanently attached to a computer and because they typically share their computers with other members of the family, Twitterific-like apps wouldn’t really work so well. And Twitter is not a strong enough app to replace IM time.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all teens would actually like Twitter. There are numerous complaints about the lameness of bulletins. People forward surveys just as something to do and others complain that this is a waste of their time. (Of course, then they go on to do it themselves.) Still, bulletin space is like Twitter space. You need to keep posting so that your friends don’t forget you. Or you don’t post at all. Such is the way of Twitter. Certain people i see flowing 5-15 times a day. Others i never hear from (or like once a week).

There’s another issue at play… Like with bulletins, it’s pretty ostentatious to think that your notes are worth pushing to others en masse. It takes a certain kind of personality to think that this kind of spamming is socially appropriate and desirable. Sure, we all love to have a sense of what’s going on, but this is push technology at its most extreme. You’re pushing your views into the attention of others (until they turn it or you off).

The techno-geek users keep telling me that it’s a conversation. Of course, this is also said of blogging. But i don’t think that either are typically conversations. More often, they are individuals standing on their soap boxes who enjoy people responding to them and may wander around to others soap boxes looking for interesting bits of data. By and large, people Twitter to share their experience; only rarely do they expect to receive anything in return. What is returned is typically a kudos or a personal thought or an organizing question. I’d be curious what percentage of Tweets start a genuine back-and-forth dialogue where the parties are on equal ground. It still amazes me that when i respond to someone’s Tweet personally, they often ignore me or respond curtly with an answer to my question. It’s as though the Tweeter wants to be recognized en masse, but doesn’t want to actually start a dialogue with their pronouncements. Of course, this is just my own observation. Maybe there are genuine conversations happening beyond my purview.

Unfortunately, i don’t know how sustainable Twitter is for most people. It’s very easy to burn out on it and once someone does, will they return? It’s also really hard for friend-management. If you add someone, even if you “leave” them, you’ll get Twitteriffic posts from them. This creates a huge disincentive for adding people, even if you welcome them to read your Tweets. Post-SXSW, i’ve seen two things: the most active in Austin are still ridiculously active. The rest have turned it off for all intents and purposes. Personally, i’m trying to see how long i’ll last before i can’t stand the invasion any longer. Given that my non-tech friends can’t really join effectively (for the same reasons as teens – text messaging plan and lack of always-on computerness and hatred of IM interruptions), i don’t think that i can get a good sense of how this would play out beyond the geek crowd. But it sure is entertaining to watch.

PS: I should note that my *favorite* part of Twitter is that when i wander to a non-functioning page, i get this image:

How can that not make you happy?

do you love your phone?

I was floored by the amount of information y’all have about laptop options (although i’m still putzing and pawing about what to spend money on since it makes me soooo sad to think of leaving Apple). Since i learned so much from you there, i though perhaps you might also know quite a bit about phones and carriers? I am not getting rid of my Sidekick (oh no, i’m still very addicted and anxiously awaiting the new one… when??), but i do need to replace my other phone pretty badly. I was waiting on the Helio but the service plan is way outside of my price range and i don’t know anyone who has gotten one so that i could try it. My phone is currently on Sprint, but i can’t stand having to login to a service to retrieve text messages so i’m thinking of finally leaving (i’ve been on Sprint since 1997), but maybe it’s just a matter of getting the right phone? I refuse to switch to AT&T given their collaboration with NSA and my Sidekick is on T-Mobile so i don’t need another phone on that carrier (i prefer having multiple carriers so that my phone is always usable). What carrier should i be thinking of using? Are there any left? (Yeah, yeah, i know… carriers suck…) I’d really like to end up with a phone plan in the range of my current one ($50). I don’t really need web or music or anything other than lots of minutes + texts + ?mms? since i use my Sidekick for most data-related stuff. Then again, i might be motivated to try this whole use your phone as a modem thing.

What phone should i get? My goal is to have something shaped like a phone that’s designed to primary handle 1) talking; 2) texting; 3) camera (so no Treo or Crackberry). It should have a speakerphone and be shaped well enough for me to keep it between my ear and shoulder as i cock my head in weird angles to talk while my hands are busy typing/driving/eating, but it shouldn’t be so big as to feel like i’m putting a piece of toast up to my ear. A camera would probably be good since everyone tells me i’d take photos if my phone has a reasonable camera and i should at least try….

The biggest thing is that the interface should be simple and easy to use. I’ve been trying this fancy Samsung phone that Sprint sent me to beta test but i just can’t stand the interface. I am humored that i can watch The Daily Show on my phone and download random songs, but i’m more likely to just watch TV/listen to music on my iPod (especially since it’s much cheaper to do so). I am not interested in having lots more functions on my phone if it means i pay the cost in ease of use. What i love the most about my Sidekick is that the interface is intuitive and simple, not mired in hierarchies from hell. I love that i can choose to download things like Suduko but that it doesn’t make my phone any more complicated.

Do you have a phone that you just absolutely love? Are there carriers out there that aren’t impossible to negotiate? I’m looking at buying someting in early July when i return from traveling so if there’s something coming out that i should wait for, that’d be good to know. More than anything, i’m curious if anyone is actually happy with their mobile solution since i’m so far pretty disappointed. What is cool and functional?

innovating mobile social technologies (damn you helio)

The next step in social technologies is mobile. Duh. Yet, a set of factors have made innovation in this space near impossible. First, carriers want to control everything. They control what goes on a handset, how much you pay for it and who else you can communicate with. Next, you have hella diverse handsets. Even if you can put an application on a phone, there’s no standard. Developers have to make a bazillion different versions of an app. To make matters worse, installing on a phone sucks and most users don’t want to do it. Plus, to make their lives easier, developers often go for Java apps and web apps which are atrociously slow and painful. All around, it’s a terrible experience for innovators, designers and users.

This headaches have a detrimental effect on the development of mobile social software. Successful social technologies requires cluster effects. Cluster effects require everyone within a particular social cluster to be able to play. If 20% of your friends can’t play because their phone/carrier won’t let them, the end result is often that NO ONE plays. Of course, there’s a tipping point where people buy a new phone or switch carriers, but that tipping point is hefty and right now, it’s for things like SMS not neuvo apps. Switching carriers is even uglier – it requires a huge drop in price.

Being able to get to basic cluster effects is the *baseline* for a mobile social app to succeed. This alone won’t make it work, but you need that to even begin. There are lots of other limitations, especially when the MoSoApp depends on geography. Take a look at something like Dodgeball. It was utterly brilliant at SXSW because 1) everyone was able to use it; 2) huge clusters were on it; 3) everyone was geographically proximate. There was a curve of use so that a fraction checked in all of the time, most checked in occasionally and a fraction never checked in. But that’s the ideal distribution for cluster effects. Still, because everyone *could* use it, it was used.

Over and over, i hear about cool technologies that involve multimedia sharing, GPS applications, graphical interfaces, etc. In theory, as research, these are great. Unfortunately, without clusters, you cannot even test the idea to see if it would make sense to a given population. 🙁

There are only three phones out there with cluster effects right now: Crackberry, Treo and Sidekick. Even still, the killer app for each of these (email or AIM) connects them not to each other but to a broader network because of non-mobile technology. Plus, each of these clusters has issues when it comes to developing for them. Crackberry appeals to the business world who is on leash to their boss. Productivity-centric apps could be helpful to this crowd, but it will not be *fun* and most of these ideas involve privacy destruction. The Treo is central around the business tech world but most of this population socializes with people who are trying out every new phone on the planet; this group is too finicky and besides, they want everything OPEN. Then there’s the Sidekick – it has penetrated the hearts and minds of urban street youth. Sadly, few designers are really interested in thinking about black urban culture. ::grumble::grumble::

When i heard that the Helio was going to launch with MySpace on board, i got super super excited. Like IM and email, MySpace is a perfect application to bridge web and mobile interactions. Sure, it only would include the communications messages and not really take advantage of the mobile issues with social networks, but it would be a good step, no? The target would inevitably be 16-30, an ideal target for dealing with mobile sociability. I was anxiously awaiting the launch, figuring that if anything could push youth to center around a technology, it would involve MySpace. From MySpace, you could actually start innovating with youth networks, location-based activities, image sharing, etc. Opportunity!

And then they launched. What marketing asshole chose the prices? $85 a month minimum on top of a $275 phone??? Has anyone not noticed that the target youth market is using the free generic phone and a $40 a month plan? You need to lure them away from their T-mobile/Sprint/Verizon plan and entice to come over. You need to do this en masse, with enthusiasm. You cannot do this for $85 a month on top of a $275 phone. ::sigh:: Opportunity lost.

There are two ways to get mobile social applications going:
1) A population needs to have access to a universal interaction platform which (except for SMS and dialing) means being on the same technology;
2) Carriers/handsets need to standardize and open up to development by outsiders.

The latter is the startup fantasy and i don’t see it happening any time soon (stupid carriers). The former is really hard because it means enticing people over away from their contracts. Plus, it means moving against gadget individuality, which is something that people have really bought into. The only way to do that is for it to be super accessible and super cool. This is unfortunately an oxymoron because cool in gadgets equals expensive which means inaccessible. While the trendsetters will all opt-in, you need the followers to come along too for cluster effects to work.

There is a third option: destroy the carriers. The possibility of WiFi phones (following blanketed WiFi) means that you just have to deal with multiple handset makers but, right now at least, they are better about openness. At least then, you’d just have one development roadblock. Unfortunately, this is probably a long way off because the telcos are in bed with legislators who are being extremely slow about universal WiFi and are all about protecting dying industries.

I hate when innovation is jammed up by bad politics and stupid forms of competition. One of the hugest challenges of convergence culture is that traditional competition doesn’t work. We’re not competing for who can create the coolest toothbrush design anymore. We’re now competing for who can build the biggest roadblocks in convergence. Today, innovation means figuring out how to best undermine the roadblocks without getting into legal trouble. Talk about a buzz kill.

So what should be done? Oh carriers, handset makers, innovators, venture capitalists, legal people… Is the goal to innovate or to control? What should be done to push past these roadblocks? (And for all of you in favor of control, remember that there are other markets besides the US/UK/Japan where innovation will occur and laws will not protect.)

Update: I want to clarify some things around youth purchasing. The youth market is 14-28. The 14-21s get their phones from their parents and are on their plans. The 21-28s get their own plans. The 14-21s are stuck with whatever free phone they get unless they can beg and plead for a cooler phone for their birthday. They also get shit plans, although many have been able to convince their parents to support SMS these days. This segment of the youth population is *key* because they are hyper active and this is when they are setting their norms for phone use these days. The way to get to them is to either make a phone that is so cool that they beg and beg for their birthday (and it fits into their parents’ plan) or to make a package so cheap that they can convince their parents to get them a separate plan because it’s economically viable. The 21-28s have more flexibility but they are still strapped for cash and are quite cautious with their plans, but if they’ve gotten used to SMS they don’t give it up. They are also more likely to take the free phone unless they are the trendsetters (because they now have to pay and begging doesn’t work). The exception to this is actually working class teens who tend to buy their own phone starting at 15/16 – they buy cooler phones but still have shit mobile plans. This is why the Sidekick worked so well in this demographic. (Note: these observations and this post are based on what i’ve seen hanging out in youth culture, not any interactions i’ve had with mobile or tech companies or any formal data i’ve collected for my dissertation. In other words, i may be very wrong.)