Thursday, February 14, 2008

Users' Love Affair With iPhone Stumps Mobile World Panel

A blue-ribbon panel of human behavior and technology experts at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain agreed that the best recent advance in the mobile telecommunications user space came not from a mobile telecom company but from Apple Inc. — the iPhone. Anup Murarka, director of technical marketing for Adobe, cited a study showing that 77 percent of iPhone purchasers described themselves as "very satisfied" with their user experience. In an ominous note for mobile operators, the iPhone respondents credited their happy experience not to AT&T, the channel through which iPhone services were delivered in the U.S, but to Apple, the device maker.

The panel, whose title was It's the User Experience, Stupid agreed that iPhone represents a model for mobile operators to follow, but they reached little agreement on how to follow. One direction, advocated by Lucia Predolin, international marketing and communications director for Buongirono S.p.A. of Milan, Italy, is to manipulate users by identifying their "need states" — including such compulsions as "killing time," and "making the most of it" — and fulfilling them subliminally. Adobe's Murarka proposed a more technological approach to improving the user experience, satisfying the mobile phone subscriber through better interface design. Sarah Lipman, co-founder and R&D director for Power2B, suggested an almost mystical solution, somehow tapping into users' "neural networks" to navigate a mobile phone interface "using touch and pre-touch input."

Panelists cautiously agreed that the current user experience — at least compared to the iPhone — is not very good. Predolin said that one problem is that many people are reluctant to tap the vast potential of mobile communications — especially the mobile Internet — because they fear the eventual cost. With so many telecom companies advertising heavily the cost of their services per minute, users hesitate to explore possibilities that might devour their precious minutes. Predolin said that this deadline consciousness is so strong among mobile users that they even constrained their consumption of minutes in a Buongiorno-sponsored trial in which participants were given mobile phones free for a week. "Operators are putting together cost plans that people can't understand," said Predolin. "It is not just cost but the way you market your cost."

Panelist Mike Yonker, general manager of worldwide strategy and operations for Texas Instruments' wireless terminals business unit, said that the way for the user to get the rich content now available on a mobile handset is through the "search" function. But this isn't so easy. He compared the limitations of a mobile handset to a full personal computer screen. Searching on a computer, he said, is like going to a store, where the customers sees every product displayed, and can make comparisons, touch the products, even try things on for size. Doing the same search on a mobile, he said, but like trying to shop in the same store but "through a drive-up window." No matter how much stuff is in the store, you can only find out through the cashier at the drive-up window. The dilemma, left unsolved by the panelists, was how to squeeze the user through that window, past the cashier, to sample all the things in the store, without guilt, while still feeling grateful to the cashier who seemed, all along, to be standing in the way. Everyone agreed that, so far, only Apple has been able to turn this trick. For users, "the content is the core," said Lipman of Power2B somewhat ruefully, "and we have to get out of their way."

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