3/12/10

By Thomas A Stewart

Mobility was the talk of the recent Monaco Media Forum, the gathering of leading entrepreneurs and executives in traditional and new media. With mobile, we're off the desktop, and that means it's a brand new world. TV is uncabled. Talk is untethered; your friends are on an app on a phone in your pocket.

The numbers are astounding: within five years, according to Hans Vestberg, president and CEO of Ericsson, 7 or 8 billion mobile subscriptions will provide 4 billion-plus people with broadband connections, many more than PCs do. If, as the saying goes, the Internet changes everything, mobility changes the Internet. The key to this change, of course, is the smart, web-connected mobile phone, the electronic device with which people feel most intimate. (Odds are you sleep beside yours.) Due to mobility, sales force management, health care, logistics and distribution management (think delivery trucks), communication, advertising and media will all be up for grabs.

Less than four years after the introduction of the iPhone, mobile marketing still is in its infancy-just as Web marketing was in the late 1990s, when Mosaic and Internet Explorer were toddlers and Web marketing meant buttons, banners, and blue links. And, of course, the strategic effects of mobility now are just a gleam in a CEO's eye. But while participants in the Monaco forum focused on mobility's meaning for marketing and media, it is clear that mobility will have major implications for just about every company's strategy in years to come.

To imagine the possible scope, let's use Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter's Five Forces. In Porter's model, the intensity of competition-and hence, profitability-is determined by five forces: The rivalry between companies in an industry; the power of suppliers; the power of customers; the availability of substitutes; and the likelihood of new entrants coming into a market. The stronger each force is, the lower profits will be.

The effect on the power of suppliers is uncertain, but it's clear that mobility will have an impact at least on these four:

New entrants: The phone screen is mostly untamed wilderness. The apps industry, which didn't exist in 2006, will have an estimate $40 billion in sales by 2014. A company that commands any of the other screens in our lives (cinema, TV, computer) will face new rivals in this space. Four years ago, Raoul Roverato of Orange told the media forum, operators like Orange were the gatekeepers in the phone business; now the gatekeepers are outfits like Apple and GetJar, the apps store founded by Ilja Laurs, and "we're the little guy."

Customers: The power of the consumer has grown steadily for 20 years at least (longer in some industries). Mobility could reverse or reinforce the trend. On the one hand, mobility may raise your power as a seller. You can follow your customer wherever she is; communicate any time; know her taste more completely; and lock her in via bookmarks, payment systems, and other conveniences that raise switching costs, as online banking does. At the same time, though, the mobilized customer carries in her purse the power to compare your price to your rivals', finding out which of two nearby bistros has better reviews on Yelp, or see whether Consumer Reports prefers the Samsung or the Sony.

Substitutes: Companies often underestimate the threat from substitutes. A golf ball manufacturer may forget that, come Father's Day, his competition includes Ralph Lauren, Craftsman, Jack Daniels, and a Yankee game. Mobility will increase the power of substitutes. Why? Because mobility will up the importance of shopper marketing (such as in-store displays and offers) over brand advertising. Plus, ever-smarter recommendation engines will be able to develop an in-the-round picture of a given buyer and therefore offer him gizmos he hadn't thought of in place of what he'd intended to buy.

Rivalry: The rise of internet-enabled shopper marketing will weaken brand loyalty. That doesn't mean brands are dead-far from it. It does mean that the battle between firms will feature less air war (fought with prime-time advertising) and more hand-to-hand combat in the shopping aisle. That shift will favor different capability systems and, in particular, should help small companies (which can't afford gazillion-dollar ad campaigns) vis a vis big ones.

The most you can say definitively is "be there and try things." Granted, that's like telling companies at the turn of the century that they had better put up a web site. But the most important part of starting something new is to take the first step. When it comes to mobility, as media visionary Al Jolson said, "You ain't heard nothin' yet."

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