December 15, 2005
Intercultural Perspectives on Cellphone Cultures

An interesting way to look at the cellphone cultures emerging in the U.S. would be through the prism of similarly emerging cellphone cultures in other countries. I've been tracking the cellphone scene in India and other parts of the world over the past two weeks and am amazed at the diversity that exists, as well as the business opportunities that are rising, and the entrepreneurs that are moving in fast to satisfy the emergent consumer demands.

The common theme seems to be that in a scenario where technology will be ubiquitous, it will be the service, innovative brand-linked promotions and compelling content that will become the major product differentiators.

Let's start our journey from London. There's an innovative service that disseminates Shakespeare as TXT messages being provided by a cellphone company called Dot Mobile, that is aimed exclusively at students. Dot Mobile provides the Shakespeare messages free to its subscribers, that is, it is an innovation not for tangible revenue per se, but rather to build and build upon an existing brand affiliation.

This branding effort is replicated across the seas in the Indian market with is growing at a scorching pace of over 2 million new handsets every month (65 million so far). While mass brand Reliance is giving away free handsets to all and sundry (including prepaid subscribers), a company like Airtel is offering a service called "Hum it", which allows the user to simply hum or sing a song and use it as a personalised ringtone, and also, believe it or not, a ‘free flight’ offer, wherein its postpaid customers can avail of a free local airline return ticket on the national carrier, Indian Airlines (more).

Meanwhile Kingfisher, which is trying to brand itself as the premium upmarket airline in a very crowded competitive field, launches a service called King Mobile, which enables its passengers to get all the latest flight information on their cell phone, including their flight status, schedule alerts and and assistance numbers in various cities (more).

Videotones are all set to take off in the country and there is a range of companies at different consumer touch points that are quickly moving in to fill up this space with premium content, such as handset maker Nokia, cellphone service provider BSNL and specialist cellphone content company

Text messaging has already exploded massively on to the scene – and everyone is reaping the rewards – thus season two of India's Millionnaire-two shows, Kaun Banega Crorepati, has received 90 million phone calls/SMS messages already from participants eager to enter (in just 55 episodes; in contrast season 1, which was aired in 2000, before the Indian text messaging boom, received only 100 million entry attempts across 305 episodes), while the first 13 episode season of Indian Idol received 55 million phone call/SMS votes (source: India Today, October 31, 2005).

Another major growth opportunity is cellphone games, which have emerged as a significant phenomenon - both culturally, and as a space where lots of money can be made. And the big companies are lining up already.... smelling the money trail. For instance, Electronic Arts recently entered into the Indian cellphone game market by means of a distribution tie up with the country's leading game company, India Games (more). This is on the heels of their recently acquiring US mobile leader Jamdat Mobile; they're also scouting for similar acquisitions globally, especially in Europe and Asia (more).

Finally, here are some observations culled from aprevious blog post of mine about India's first mobile gaming conference, that can be applicable to the US market as well.

  • Mobile games will be the number one revenue earner in India, surpassing even ringtones.

  • M3G or mobile broadband will be a major boost to mobile gaming. But it will be content that will drive adoption of this new platform, not the other way around.

  • Gaming audiences are different from ringtone audiences. Gaming audiences are mainly between 15-26, and come from all over, even small towns and rural areas.

  • As the market space increases, traditional media houses, which so far, have entered into other spaces like broadband, TV, etc, may also enter the mobile gaming space. This will make the situation interesting for the exclusive gaming companies who have set up shop so far.

  • Merely having a mobile phone does not mean that people will want to play a game on it. Price is really a sensitive issue. The entry point for a mobile game should be low. Very low.

  • Flexible pricing will work better than fixed pricing. Thus the Yahoo model - of first play it for free, then for 50 cents... then for a dollar, etc. may be more sensible, than a fixed price strategy.

  • Popular cultural phenomena like cricket, or Bollywood will always translate well to games. But niche and specific ideas like Mobile Yoga, or Cooking, may also find interested users.

  • Publishers, handset manufacturers and operators need to address the current challenges and grow the market together.