Mobile Marketing: Who’s on First, What’s on Second, and I Don’t Know What’s on the Third Screen

5/7/08

If you still think that e-mail and Internet are things you get on your computer, then you’re probably my age. Or maybe half my age.

I got a taste of the new generation gap yesterday at Boston’s Mobile Monday event, when an audience member pointed out that for people younger than himself, the mobile phone—the “third screen” after the TV and computer—is in fact the first screen. Judging from that person’s age (I would guess thirtysomething), the great mobility divide lies somewhere in the late teens or early 20s.

For those who haven’t heard about Mobile Monday, it is a monthly event for the mobile industry, organized locally in scores of cities around the world, from Helsinki to Hyderabad. There is sometimes a technology focus, sometimes business. For a rather introverted person like me it is usually a great time, as everybody else is so intent on networking. You can just stand in one place and a lot of interesting people will walk up to you and tell you about their great ideas.

Monday’s theme at the Liberty Hotel in Boston was marketing and advertising. The Boston area has established itself as one of the world’s most important clusters in the mobile industry, and four of the eight companies represented on the event’s panel have headquarters or major operations in the Boston area: Third Screen Media, g8wave, Havas Mobext, and Quattro.

(Mobext gave new meaning to “mobility” when managing director Phuc Truong presented a slide with a map of his company’s global offices. It showed Great Britain in Norway and Spain somewhere on the border between Morocco and Algeria. Not that I blame him—I would have a hard time locating exotic places like Iowa or Idaho on a map of the USA.)

One of the main messages from both the panel and the audience was that you have to develop applications and technologies for a wide range of handsets. You can’t trust the user to be able to browse Web pages filled with fancy graphics if she or he is using a decade-old handset. Whatever you’re developing has to work not only on high-end smartphones, like the iPhone, but also on older, simpler platforms.

That might be easy if you’re sending text messages to local customers telling them about this weekend’s bargains at the supermarket. But if you’re trying to display advanced stuff like graphics, games, and social sites for a global brand—combining different models from a range of handset manufacturers with different mobile operators and all their systems—you end up with something like 80,000 varieties of user software to account for. “Scenic Waltham”-based Quattro has all of these in its database, said CTO Eswar Priyadarshan, and managing it is a major operation. I believe him.

Given that “third” is the new “first,” I wondered if Kent Johnson, director of business operations at Third Screen Media and one of the panel speakers, might have second thoughts about his company’s name. But in the end, he and the rest of the panel seemed to agree on at least one thing: the growing importance of the mobile phone as a way to reach consumers.

As a Scandinavian, this is somewhat surprising to me. I remember that just 10 years ago Americans seemed to think it was cool to have a pager, at the same time as our school kids back home were upgrading to their fourth or fifth cell phone. Frankly, we thought you would never catch up. Now you might have even passed us—although you still can’t pay the subway fare in Boston with your cell phone.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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  • http://www.bostoncapitaladvisors.com mark slater

    i cant tell you how long mobile marketing has been a fad here – its still not even born, and i am sure the same people from 5 years ago are still in the same room screaming to anyone that will listen about its potential.

    Its a large graveyard of failures who have tried.