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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

What future for the mobile phone in a multi-platform world?

[Customer journeys, such as finding new music or communicating with friends, no longer take place within the confines of a single device or service. Users may combine several devices or applications to achieve their objectives, creating a new set of challenges when designing user experiences which excel in this multi-platform environment. This essay brings together 5 of the leading thinkers in digital industry to explore the concept of multi-platform mobile user experience ahead of a new MEX conference (2nd/3rd December 2009, London) on this same theme] This article is also available in Chinese.

By Marek Pawlowski (PMN), Thibaut Rouffineau (Wireless Industry Partnership), Lisa Whelan (, Andreas Constantinou (VisionMobile) and Matt Lewis (ARCChart).

Marek Pawlowski, Editorial Director at PMN and founder of the MEX Conference, begins by examining the role of the mobile phone in a future of multi-platform experiences:

There is an old cliche rolled out time and again at mobile industry conferences: “You never leave your house without your wallet, keys…and mobile phone.” It is, of course, meant to remind us how indispensable handsets have become to our daily lives (and, perhaps, by extension, reassure all those in the mobile industry that, not only are their jobs secure, but they are meaningfully engaged in providing a significant service to humanity!).

A recent BBC documentary about the lifecycle of mobiles (‘The Life and Death of a Mobile Phone‘, BBC4, 5th October 2009) provided an insight into just how attached users have become to their phones, with many of the people interviewed confessing to never turning off their handset – even when they were asleep – and never letting it leave their sight. The level of attachment exhibited by the interview subjects was quite remarkable.

This places the mobile phone in an interesting position. By virtue of its ubiquity, it is the digital device we spend the most time with every day and the one we are most likely to trust and respond to. What then will be the role of the mobile phone in tying together the myriad digital platforms which fill our lives?

The number of digital assets and devices owned by the average human is growing daily. The volume of emails, texts, videos, photos and music files to which each individual can lay claim is exploding. So too is the number of places we store this information. If we look just at one type of data – say, photos – we find that an average individual may have a collection of photos on their camera phone, as well as several albums downloaded to their PC from their digital camera. If they’re truly at the cutting edge, they may even have some images stored on a network-attached storage (NAS) device and beamed wirelessly to digital photo frames around their house. The same scenario of multiple storage locations and multiple access devices is also true of other data types, from email messages to videos.

This model is both unsustainable and undesirable for the human mind. The complexity of keeping track of where we have stored what and how best we can access it will lead to an apathy induced by our natural fear of cognitive effort. We are already starting to see the first signs of this as digital pioneers, those who have led the charge into a world of multiple social networking accounts, PCs, MP3 players, consoles and phones, start to kick-back against the information overload they have brought upon themselves. When we undertook research with more than 700 people in digital industry during the planning stages for our next MEX Conference (2nd/3rd December 2009), it was eye-opening to hear how many people working in the technology business feel overwhelmed by the very devices they have themselves created.

As an industry which has developed the phone – the most widespread computing and communications device in this multi-platform future – the mobile business has a responsibility to sit in the driving seat of delivering great user experience across all of the digital platforms in our lives. Crucially, the industry faces the challenge of combining the diverse range of devices in users’ lives – from PC to phone to interactive TV – into an experience genuinely greater than the sum of its parts.

Thibaut Rouffineau of the Wireless Industry Partnership (WIP), picks up the story and suggests possible strategies the mobile industry may adopt for delivering multi-platform services:

The rush of the mobile industry towards ‘services’ rather than devices is a clear indicator of the solution most feel will become the glue between the devices, hoping for a good old style horizontal integration to solve the fragmentation.

Based on previous examples, the type of services to be offered are pretty obvious: single identity and single sign-on valid across all devices, universal storage to synch-up all devices and storage media, billing platform for universal one click payment, universal recommendation and preference engine.

Unfortunately the mobile industry has rather poor track records when it comes to reducing fragmentation, whether horizontally or vertically.

It basically knows 2 models: ‘king making’ and the operator association

King making is quite simple, the number one player in the space acquires or adopts a technology and sways the balance in the ‘right’ direction; for example, cameras, GPS and navigation. Simple but more and more difficult as the industry becomes more and more competitive, furthermore there is no killer technology to be adopted today that would solve the problem.

The operator association approach (e.g. UMTS Forum or GSMA) is pretty good at getting all to walk in the ‘correct and unified direction’, but the time involved, the size of the issue, the number of solutions to explore and the club approach would make such an association impossible.

And thus it’s no surprise to any observer of things mobile that most disruptions (or chasm crossings) in the past few years have come from outside the mobile world: Apple for touchscreen and application purchase, Google for open source & mobile cloud services. It thus appears, based on past analysis, that the only credible way forward is the arrival of a new player in the market to solve this issue.

So what kind of new player could this be…

  1. A vertical player moving out its niche… The name Apple obviously jumps to mind as a company which will solve this fragmentation challenge for you if you can pay the price to buy the entire Jobsfolio of ‘i-catching’ products. Can Apple now go mainstream with more than the iPod and the iPhone? Let’s not doubt it.

  2. A horizontal web service player extending into mobile… This sounds like a familiar reality called Google. In an industry known for its ability to constantly fragment and micro-segment, doubts are possible but isn’t Google too big to fail?

  3. A new universal remote control provider using a phone-type device… Previous attempts in TV / VCR / PDAs have shown the limits of this model relying on massive testing by the supplier, long set-up by the user and the general failure to encompass the variety of environment one interacts with.

  4. A neuro-controlled headset controlling standard interfaces on various devices… Hardware is now available from Emotiv for those willing to try…definitely promising.

  5. An identity service provider able to aggregate little by little all individual preferences, behaviors and automate activities such as payment, authentication etc in a secure way. An option sought after by many.

  6. A new digital ad agency specializing in multi-screen media buy. Once again, a sought after option…

However the past is not always a good adviser for the future…another famous saying at conferences!.

In a time of personalisation and increased multi-tasking, vertical or horizontal integration might not be the best way to deal with fragmentation anymore. Rather we could look to a world of standards, where defragmentation or user experience creation is a personal matter rather than an industry matter; where each individual is both in charge and empowered to make their own choices around what matters and what doesn’t; what they want to explore in its complexity and what they only want to deal with at a superficial level. From this perspective the industry winners will be those who can embed in their products standards, co-creation, a notion of variable complexity and the necessary need for multi-platform.

Lisa Whelan, founder of and a business development, strategy and marketing consultant, delves deeper into what multi-channel services mean for user psychology and the desire for simplicity:

At the crux of this challenge for the mobile industry is finding a way to proactively address consumers’ needs, without overwhelming consumers with choice. Different people have different needs. And, yet presenting users with too much choice isn’t necessarily a good thing, nor is it even particularly advantageous to mobile companies.

From a user’s perspective, choice often means complication, and in the eyes of the consumer, simple often wins out over complex – even when it means fewer features.

As humans, we like the ‘idea’ of choice, but we often find it difficult to make decisions when were offered too much choice (a state known as ‘analysis paralysis’). In theory, more choice should be a good thing for consumers, but when it comes to mobile technology, I believe users buy a phone to reduce the complication in their life – not add to it.

When it comes to mobile phones, as long as our basic needs are addressed, most of us are happy – even if we aren’t offered a huge amount of choice about how that happens. By ‘basic’, I mean being able to communicate and share, be it through voice calls, emails, or social networks, organize (calendar), and to a lesser extent, be entertained, on the go, for an adequate period of time (i.e. long battery life). The rest is gravy.

Take for example the Palm, Inc. (at the time, PalmOne) vs. RIM battle of the early to mid 2000s. The Palm Treo could run thousands of applications – including a handful of 3rd party push email clients (Good, Seven, Visto and more). In contrast, RIM offered fewer mobile applications for the Blackberry and one push email client – it’s own, pre-loaded client. Which company ultimately saw better uptake of push email and remains one of the leading OEMs? RIM. In retrospect, it seems that Palm may have offered its users too many choices, rather than recommending a single push email app that executed well. The result was consumer ‘analysis paralysis’ and increased market fragmentation.

Take as another example the iPhone. Unconfirmed reports estimate the total number of applications on the Apple App Store at 100,000, but how many of those 100,000 applications are being downloaded more than 6 weeks after their initial release? Most of the developers I know are saying that the average app life cycle is just 4 to 6 weeks without a product refresh. Only a few apps continue to be popular after their initial launch, leading me to believe there are only a few apps that people consistently find they ‘need’.

According to research conducted by mobile analytics vendor Flurry, over a 90 day period, the apps used most frequently and for the longest period of time immediately after download fell into one of four categories – from lowest to highest – health and fitness, weather, reference and news. In contrast, entertainment, social networking, travel and sports apps were used the least frequently and were rarely used past 45 days.

So, what then will be the role of the mobile phone in tying together the myriad digital platforms that fill our lives? It all depends on which digital platforms become the most essential to consumers over time. If a large enough group of consumers decide that they need access to a specific group of digital mediums from their mobile phone, the growing eco-system of software developers will respond organically. As app store owners continue to improve merchandising, discovery, and behavioral targeting, more and more, consumers will be shown the apps and services that most effectively address their specific needs, rather than being burdened with too many choices.

Matt Lewis, Managing Director at mobile industry analysis firm ARCChart, discusses what the architecture might look like for multi-platform services and expands on the role of the next generation address book in tying it all together:

At the heart of any strategy to improve the user experience in a multi-device paradigm sits the mobile cloud. While the term ‘cloud’ is a relatively new addition to the industry vernacular, it’s easy to understand the concept it references.

The range of devices and services with which users now engage often store information remotely, off-device. In essence, the cloud simply refers to the off-device storage of this information on a remotely located server, which can be tapped into with a variety of front-end applications – a browser, widget, dedicated app, picture frame or any client providing a window into the information and allowing data to be added, edited and removed.

Photos provide a simple example of the mobile cloud. Several digital cameras on the market now have the capability to automatically upload photographs directly to photo sharing sites like Flickr, using the camera’s embedded Wi-Fi capability. The user may then access these photos on their PC through a browser; or on their phone through a dedicated application (which may offer rich photo editing features); or their laptop screensaver maybe be configured to run a slideshow of the images held in their photo sharing account. All these devices and applications are accessing content by simply tapping into the cloud.

The cloud has grown organically and the approach to storing and accessing the data is more or less specific to each content/service provider. However, it is conceivable that as cloud services become more engrained, and consumers demand the ability to export and share files and media between different providers, the industry will move towards a more structured approach, defining specific storage, access and synchronisation standards. SyncML is one standard which already exists and which may evolve to address the entire cloud.

SyncML is commonly viewed as a method to synchronise contact and calendar information and the migration of the phonebook off the phone and into the cloud will perhaps be one of the most important user experience boosts in the multi-platform world – this is the advent of the Phonebook 2.0.

User are gradually becoming overwhelmed by the number of disparate lists of contacts, or phonebooks, they are now managing. A quick count of my own phonebooks shows the tally is eight:

  1. Mobile phone (on-device)

  2. Corporate phonebook

  3. Email address book

  4. Facebook

  5. LinkedIn

  6. Windows Messenger

  7. Skype

  8. Twitter

Throw in a couple more social networks or IM communities and it’s easy to see how some users are juggling in excess of ten separate phonebooks, and the number is expected to grow as more services promote the sharing of content within and across communities. Often, individual contacts are repeated across several phonebooks – for example, a close friend is likely to appear in the contact list on the phone, Facebook, LinkedIn, Messenger, Skype and Twitter. The same person is repeated in all phonebooks as if each instance is a unique contact.

All these services already exist in the cloud, in that they are accessible remotely from different devices and applications and can be updated and edited from each. The problem is that each phonebook exist as a separate silo.

The objective of the phonebook 2.0 is to aggregate all these disparate contact lists within the cloud, providing a single window into a user’s entire phonebook portfolio. The phonebook 2.0 identifies repeated individuals and amalgamates their credentials from each service into a single phonebook entry, providing a one-stop view.

It is easy to see how such an approach not only enriches the user experience by greatly simplifying contact management, but the aggregated information is of far greater value than in its disparate format

Take, for example, presence. Many social and IM networks provide an indication of presence, showing the real-time status of an individual in terms of their usage of the service (online, offline, away etc.). Aggregated in phonebook 2.0, presence supplies more granular information, identifying the services on which someone can, or cannot, be reached. Add to that a location facility, and the value of phonebook 2.0 ratchets up another notch. As social networks roll-out location tracking features to their users, the aggregated phonebook will become a vital tool for engaging with professional and social communities based on geography.

The question now becomes: who will become the phonebook gatekeeper, provisioning the aggregated phonebook service to end users? Will it be carriers, the handset makers or OS providers; or will it be the social networks or portal players like Google and Yahoo? Or will an independent third-party spot the opportunity?

Andreas Constantinou, Research Director and founder of VisionMobile, explains how multi-platform services will need a deep understanding of users’ total context and behaviour:

Information overload will necessitate more than filtering or search; intelligent, contextually relevant recommendations that take into account our long term habits and our short term topics of interest, to suggest information, music, events or activities which are relevant. Beyond recommendation, new forms of communication will allow us to interact with many more people in the same space of time – forms of communication that are today unimaginable, in the same way that Twitter and Google Wave were unimaginable 5 years ago.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your views on this essay and you can help to advance the debate on multi-platform user experience by contributing a comment to the blog.


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