Mobile Tech

OPINION

The Fly in the Smartphone Ointment

For a second, I thought the Radio Shack ad in my Gmail inbox was trying to sell me a new netbook or a previously unreported competitor to Apple’s forthcoming iPad. Then I took the time to read all the ad copy:

“Watch. Read. Surf. Play on the Biggest Touchscreen Smartphone Around.”

Ah. That would be the new T-Mobile HTC HD2, which comes pre-loaded with both “Transformers” movies, a Barnes & Noble e-reader app for flipping through New York Times bestsellers and MobiTV for laughing along with live episodes of “The Office.” All of this is viewable on a 4.3-inch screen and powered by a “lightning-fast” 1GHz processor.

T-Mobile and Radio Shack must be very confident of their abilities to sell the phone on its data-intensive features alone, because nowhere in the ad copy do I find anything alluding to the quality of the phone calls I can make and receive on this smartphone. I get a blurb that says I can check email, text messages and Facebook status updates, all at the same time. But given the problematic nature of some other carriers’ ability to hold and keep a voice signal throughout an entire conversation in certain major U.S. cities, you would think that would be a selling point for an aggressive telecommunications company.

A Mad, Mad, Mad Mobile World

This is what it has come to in the phone game. We have the latest ways to entertain ourselves on the smallest, sharpest-looking screens available. We can write each other via short message, long message or tweet from our phones in the same way we do on our computers. We have app stores aplenty offering productivity and lifestyle accessories, and casual games to entertain us in airport lounges (let’s hear it for “Bebbled” on the Android OS!) The actual ability to make a phone call is the last thing that’s advertised by carriers, handset makers and retailers.

Can you hear me now? Not anymore. Verizon’s oft-repeated ad tag line of just a couple of years ago has already faded into the mists of techno-memory.

Such is the environment being celebrated at the CTIA trade show in Las Vegas, where new smartphones and shiny mobile devices are competing with showgirls this week in the glamor and glitz department. Sprint is rolling out a 4G EVO smartphone, even though 4G network coverage is still a work in progress. There’s more clarity on the Windows Phone 7 offerings, everybody is playing up social network access, and location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla are the rage (as they were at the recent South by Southwest Interactive Conference). Touchscreens rule. Smartphone cameras and camcorders are getting more powerful. SD card storage capabilities are getting fatter (I mean, come on: both “Transformers” movies?”).

It’s a mobile world, spinning in a mobile whirl. You can thank the iPhone for all this buzz, development and activity, but maybe you can be consoled by the fact that all of these handsets will mean more competition for Apple in the near-term. However, it will likely mean more potential annoyances for buyers of all smartphones, as they gird themselves for a blizzard of advertising on all these mobile platforms.

The Latest Ad News

Ad Mob, one of the first and biggest mobile advertising networks — and now a part of Google’s empire — released new survey results this week showing smartphone traffic up a staggering 193 percent from Feb. 2009 to last month. In terms of operating systems, Apple’s iPhone OS still dominates the market, but Android grew from 2 to 24 percent in only a year, which highlights the opportunities for those handset makers and carriers who have Android phones coming out later this year. Another surprising aspect of the survey: non-phone devices such as the iPod touch also saw big gains in network traffic usage.

It’s not a smartphone, but the new Apple iPad certainly qualifies as a smart-looking mobile platform, and both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were able to nail down all the advertisers attaching themselves to newspaper, magazine and wire service applications coming on Steve Jobs’ new toy: Fex Ex, Chase Sapphire, Toyota, Unilever. Small wonder that ABI Research is trumpeting a new white paper called “Mobile Marketing Strategies: Is Your Brand Ready to Engage Mobile Consumers?”

I have seen that same headline — more or less — repeated in any number of newsletter items and tweeted links during the past six months. There is potential gold in those mobile hills, and marketers are already hard at work figuring out how to pan the rising streams of social network users for brand enhancement and engagement, and with valid arguments made for social networking sparking growth in mobile space, it’s only a matter of time before the ads come a-knocking on your websurfing handset of choice.

I’m not arguing against this; I believe in capitalism, these apps and services need to be paid for if they’re going to be offered up for free, and I’d rather deal with advertising to get my mobile news and entertainment than pay a subscriber fee. For those who have missed my point in earlier columns, here it is again, brought to you free of charge: Paywalls won’t work for any kind of online news service, mobile or not, so feel free to explore ad-based models to bring in the revenue.

However, please consider the consumer first and foremost while you’re digging for that revenue. Consider one of the questions that ABI Research poses in its white paper: how do consumers feel about the promotions you may be sending their way on mobile phones as they and their GPS-enabled smartphones walk by a store in a mall?

Keep in mind that many new owners of fancy smartphones will spend a lot of time figuring out settings, network capabilities and app features. Give them the easy way to opt out of ads and promotions, even if you are trying to save them 20 percent on a grande latte or the latest Lady Gaga CD. Unobtrusiveness is the keyword here, and it will be extremely difficult to accomplish on the smaller screen real-estate of a Droid Eris or an iPhone. But advertisers, please give it your best shot. The last thing you want to read is a flurry of trend stories in the tech press about consumer backlash over the flurry of ads they face on their shiny new phones.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

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