By the time you read this it will be out of date. Traffic to Westfield sites coming from mobile devices is sitting on 20% at the end of July 2011. If you trawl the net for similar stories, this figure isn’t remarkable. What is remarkable is that at the start of the year this figure was 10%, by Easter 15% and we have no mobile web offering. We are not serving properly 1 in 5 of our audience at this point in time, and while extrapolation is a tricky business the trend’s pretty clear… it looks like the mobile wave has finally broken.

This is one wave that’s been rolling in for a long time. I was building app stores for T-Mobile back in 2002, back when WAP was the markup standard (for any random definition of ‘standard’) and the main game was J2ME on Nokia. We were sure the wave was less than 18 months away.  By 2004 I was building mobile news sites for and at Fairfax, attempting to play nicely within the walled gardens of the four major telcos in Australia, and the wave was just a year away. I was back at Fairfax in 2007 building the mcommerce site for, attempting to navigate the maze of per-carrier premium SMS payment options. With the latter, at one point we reached 5% of all mobile internet traffic in Australia, and the wave was just about any day now.

But still the wave didn’t break. Why…? These are what I think the reasons were. In the early days it wasn’t because WAP was crap necessarily, it was more to do with other factors. Handsets were waiting for Moore’s Law to bring them up to speed, sure, and elements such as screen display weren’t great, but a news site or a Twitter client would have run fine. It wasn’t the god-awful rigmarole of setting your handset up for the interweb either… that was a UI and provisioning problem that could have been solved if enough people thought it mattered. It wasn’t really even about connection speeds that sometimes compared unfavourably to simply placing the handset directly on the server and waiting for the data to migrate via osmosis. For me it came down to two things: the blizzard of handset types and the fear of the cost of surfing. If every manufacturer and even every OS level has a different way to get onto the web, that’s quite a burden of education you’re imposing on your customers. But the root I think was the pricing of data. If it costs a dollar a kilobyte then the only defence against bill shock is to surf as little as possible. Why bother reworking the UI or building compelling content if no-one has a deep enough wallet to use it? I’d contend that the iPhone didn’t kickstart the mobile web so much as 3G plan prices kickstarted the iPhone. Breaking out of the costly data plans has also killed off the walled garden since there’s now little reason to stay in-garden to receive the luxury of unmetered downloads. We’re finally free of the telco standover man, and as the market grows a lot of the other problems with mobile are finally worth getting solved.

So the wave’s finally here… but what does looking back tell us looking forward? Here are my key learnings:

  • Data still has to get cheaper; telling customers to stop using their mobiles through captive-market pricing is a massive brake on market growth. This has taken a decade to learn and it’s not over yet. As an example, international roaming data rates would make Al Capone blush and are killing a mobile heartland – you don’t take your desktop computer on a tour of Italy but you do take your phone. Who would surf the Lonely Planet guide at GPRS prices though?
  • Handset proliferation will increase. You’d have to be a pretty hardcore Apple fan to argue that guys like Android aren’t going to dominate our future given the stats coming out of the US. Remember Nokia’s position in the 90’s? They brought mobile telecoms out of the dark ages, and pretty much transformed the planet in doing so. But they also gave a new breed of manufacturers a powerful incentive to get smart and try and cut in on the pie.  There’s nothing to indicate that Apple this time are any different; the mobile landscape will be heterogeneous. One size does not fit all.
  • Related to the point above, apps may be the reality now but they are not the future. For a mobile product provider the number of app versions to test can be worked out via this formula: platforms * OS versions * countries = variants to test. When the iPhone launched, this was 1*1*1=1; for Westfield this would currently be 3*3*4=36 combinations (and this calculation doesn’t take into account Android platform differences between manufacturers). Add to this the logistics of deploying 36 app variants and keeping them up to date on customers’ handsets and you soon come to the conclusion that there are some combos you’re willing to skip testing for. At this point you have implicitly decided you are okay to move away from seeking the perfection of the app experience; so you may as well embrace the equivalent imperfections of a web experience but with a much smaller testing and deployment burden.
  • Mobile is core. There is a shrinking distinction between web and mobile for consumers: checking a Twitter feed on the phone, browsing the news on a laptop, watching YouTube on the iPad, all these activities and devices are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

The last point is important for those of us who are seeking to provide a service online.  It’s time to stop talking about our mobile site and our website as if they are two separate things.  They are now two aspects of the same product and consumers increasingly expect a level of service on the mobile pages comparable to their experience on your website – the days of outsourcing the production of a 5-page mobile site to a 3rd party specialist dev shop are over.  It’s time to tool up and talk about mobile as a first-level part of your product offering.