The reaction to Russ’s post about shutting down Mowser and his thoughts on the mobile web have me in a bit of a tizzy. Russ is a good friend, and I understand where his thoughts are coming from, so I’m not going to attack him. I would however like to bitch at the rest of the Internet for being unthinking sheep on the whole.
The reaction to Russ’s post seems to be “Oh god no! The mobile internet is dead!” For one of the folks who was a vocal advocate of the web on small devices to say that developing for low end devices is a waste of time, well then the whole game must be over and everyone should pack up their tents and go home. Come on! Here’s an example of something I like to call “independent thought”, all of you out there might like to try this exercise on your own.
First is to try to extract some core points from the stuff that’s laid down in the post. Try to draw some boundaries around what exactly it is that seems to be the issue with Mowser. First of all we were aimed at lower capability devices, the average handset you find in pockets from San Francisco to Mumbai. That meant we weren’t doing anything special for higher capability devices like the iPhone or recent N and E series Nokia devices. While that increases the audience you can address, it also takes a lot of the whiz-bang WOW factor out of the initial user experience for the power users. It also means that we were positioned against the current market movement, which sees more and more high capability devices out there. Does that mean that a content adaption service would never be able to survive in the world of high capability handsets? NO! It just means that two guys working out of their homes and trying to cover all aspects of the business weren’t able to come up with a method that covered high capability devices with a pleasant experience and served low capability devices adequately.
As far as the fact that many of the requests through Mowser were porn related, that’s not a unique issue, and certainly not “a problem”. Carrier networks try to filter out porn and restrict what people can do. Give them an open system and they’re going to go out looking for what they want. And if they want hot girl on girl action, hell, that’s what we serve up. Takeaway for that is that there’s huge potential in adult mobile content still, not all the business models have been explored there apparently. Does that means that “everyone browsing the mobile web” is a pervert? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. Does it mean that the only stuff you can put on the mobile web and get an audience is adult content? No. But it means that given the methods we used to grow organic traffic we got a lot more adult related searches than other terms. You can draw no other conclusions from it, and to do otherwise would be stupid.
Third is the monetization. Making significant scratch from a mobile website run as a media company is still pretty hard. The availability of mobile advertising networks has lowered the bar quite a bit. But not enough so that an adaption engine with monetization on interstitial pages and throwoff traffic on a directory of links is a no-brainer. We had too few methods of monetization build into Mowser, too few “advertising positions per pageview”, and hadn’t made it over the traffic hump where trying to represent any subsection of our property as a higher value media buy could have increased our margins. Because we did have lots of traffic from places like India and South Africa, which are less hotly contested in the advertising networks, much of the advertising we had a relatively low payout per thousand impressions (eCPM in the biz). We didn’t have a good mechanism for profiting off that traffic more directly, though I’m sure the right person would be able to find a way to make that work.
Finally there’s the team. Two guys who have been around mobile for years, very familiar with the web and current trends in online services, and well connected to the existing ecosystem. But also not sales and business development geniuses. A lot of this stuff fell to me, and I sent out a bunch of emails and called up the folks I was able to call up to pitch the idea. Some of them signed on, which was great. Mostly they were existing mobile publishers interested in linking out to resources on the web. But I wasn’t able to land any big online content networks. Lighting up About.com for instance with a mobile version for all their pages, or WordPress.com. Getting integrated to mobilize outbound links from Facebook mobile, or MySpace, or LinkedIn. Someone with a better background than me might have been able to make those kinds of deals. Would it have changed everything? I’m not sure, but it’s an area of execution we failed at which could have shifted the balance. Should we have dumped the consumer focused side of things and instead sold transcoding as a service charged per thousand requests through the adaption engine? Should we have been looking to license this thing right off the bat? There were other methods we didn’t explore at all.
So take that all together and try to draw some conclusions out of it. Here are a few that pop to mind:
- If low capability devices are shrinking in overall market share it’s going to take more than minimal content stripping to make a compelling mobile experience. You should be planning for iPhone style devices to become more the normal and also figure out what needs to be done to service them. That means you probably need more than one engineer working on the problem, and should be looking at folks with traditional web experience in addition to those who know the details of mobile specific markup or you’ll paint yourself into a corner.
- You can’t represent a general adaption network as a premium property unless you find a way to segment. You can’t segment until you have a lot of traffic. Either try to grow in niches, starting in areas where you know you can monetize well and have models other than general network fill available. Or plan to run at a loss for a while and have a strong model for growth you can measure, and make sure you have control over it. “Google sends us traffic” does not count, especially in mobile. They can be sending you 100 thousand searches one day, and 10k the next. That’s their right as a search provider, they’re tuning as they learn as well. You need to have direct control over a majority of your traffic if your traffic is the way you make money.
- Selling the idea of making a mobile version to someone making money off web advertising is a very hard sell. They see small incremental revenue and a lot of technical complexity. Selling the idea of a free service that allows an existing mobile site owner to link to additional content, especially if they can profit from those links – that’s much easier. But even given that I wasn’t able to walk into LinkedIn and say “Hey, I have a great service for your mobile site that would allow you to include the links from the web profile pages in the mobile profile pages as well” and make that sale. I’m sure there are thousands of people who could. If you’re going to do those kinds of things, find those people early on. That means you have to be able to pick a strategy and commit to it.
See, look at that. Concrete helpful points instead of sensationalist hand waving. This was fun, thank you for joining me. I recommend trying this method of “thinking” whenever you can. Right now I’m going back to growing the mobile ecosystem wherever I can.