Thursday, September 6, 2007

The mobile Internet buzz

It would be easy to dismiss the whole mobile Internet buzz as nothing more than, well, buzz. After all, we've been through it all before with WAP and other hype cycles. But it would also be a mistake.

Mobile infrastructure looks finally ready to be a prime access mode for getting onto the Internet and some of the indicators indeed look promising. Certainly there's a ton of investment dollars being funneled into it. While this column has been negative about the iPhone since its introduction, it did serve to show the potential of the mobile Internet. And its introduction has also focussed attention on the capabilities of some of the other device makers and at the same time injected a healthy dose of new competition into the mix.

Recently, for example, I was shown a new Nokia device that could send photos to the Flickr image sharing service with just one-click. And the fact that the device's software pointed the user to the feature automatically, perhaps guiding them to a service that they didn't know existed, was also encouraging.

Video is also another rising capability, with CNN using the latest Nokia N series phones to do coverage that was later broadcast to its regular TV viewers earlier this year. And in Africa, a continent normally seen as on the wrong side of the digital divide, they are also doing reportage via mobile devices.

The Voices of Africa project has three mobile reporters in different countries filing stories for the Africa News web site ( Since May this year they have been testing and getting experience in uploading texts, photos and videos - all via GPRS networks. Imagine what they could do on 3G.

Here in Asia, we're lucky that mobile networks are being upgraded to provide faster uploads and downloads. StarHub in Singapore, for example, will be offering one of the region's first HSPA (high-speed packet access) networks, with touted download and upload speeds of 7.2Mbps and 1.9Mbps respectively (even though we all know in reality that users won't be actually getting anywhere near those speeds).

And think what you will about the relative merits of WiMax versus 3G, the fact that both standards are competing and pushing each other can only be good for consumers and content providers alike.

Behind the scenes things are also moving along as well. For example at this year's JavaOne event in May, Sun released a new open mobile development platform called JavaFX Mobile, which it expects to lead to more innovative and sophisticated (and open) services on mobile devices. (The technology was actually developed by SavaJe Technologies and acquired by Sun this year.)

Some of the types of services that might be envisaged by Sun and others have already arrived. While most of the major social networking sites and the likes of YouTube are planning on porting their capabilities to the mobile world, other lesser-known names have already made progress in this direction.

In Japan, for example, social networking sites for the mobile are probably well ahead of anywhere else in the world. Take the example of mobagetown, a mobile social networking site that had over 6 million users as of June this year. And the icing on the cake: it's apparently turning a nice profit.

As a result, similar services are popping up regularly, with Media Groove planning the launch of "Chipuya Town" next month, according to Infinita. It reported that it will be a mobile Flash-based 2D version of real-world Tokyo youth hotspot Shibuya and include things such microblogs, communities, friends and chat as well as its own virtual currency.

There are a legion of other examples out there, but I'm sure you get the picture. While there will no doubt be a lot more hype to come, not to mention a decent spreading of both the instantly filthy-rich and some belly-up companies, this time the mobile Internet looks like the real thing.

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