When he was seven months old, my son picked up my iPhone, which he’d seen me use many times since he was born, and started jabbing at the screen. To him the device wasn’t so much a phone, but more something you touched and prodded and, unbeknownst to him, enjoyed.
Anyone who grew up in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or even the early 1990s would have been beguiled by the prospect of a personal communications device as pioneered in Star Trek (due in part to the lack of a budget to create realistic space craft interaction), and then used in every sci-fi movie ever since. And lo, using radio waves, such a device came to pass – the mobile phone was born.
Early adopters were ridiculed, and many commentators suggested that such a thing would never take off. It would be too expensive, too cumbersome and would never achieve the critical mass of users needed to make it practical.
Well, as we know now, that wasn’t the case. Mobile phones are everywhere, but as my young son – who is now 18 months old and can actually use, albeit rudimentarily, an iPhone – confirms, these devices are proving to be more than just phones. They have morphed in a very short period of time into computers in our pockets.
The modern handset is connected to the Internet, has processing power that outstrips by some margin that found in the Apollo spacecrafts that got humankind to the moon, has a full color screen, can handle multimedia, and is connected to everyone else with a phone. This has become a modern marvel and, to my mind, is one of the defining inventions of humankind.
But hyperbole aside, the mobile phone of today is a powerful beast – with a profile and ubiquity dominant enough to influence a small boy before he could walk or talk – and this makes it commercially interesting to us all.
But what is mobile commerce and how can it benefit you? Well, to most people m-commerce is simply an extension of online shopping – connecting these devices that people hold so dear and have with them all the time to the web and hence to online shops.
Online shopping took many years to get entrenched in the public mindset, but now it is a standard way of shopping. The mobile phone clearly offers an even more convenient way to do it than a computer, allowing people sitting in front of the TV to shop, without having to get up and turn on a PC or pick up a laptop.
This view of mobile commerce is indeed a vital part of the multibillion dollar m-commerce marketplace. But there is so much more to what mobile in commerce can deliver that, well.
M-commerce, of which mobile retailing is a subset, is everything from selling content and goods, to delivering vouchers and coupons, to engaging with and entertaining potential shoppers. The phone becomes a tool to drive those shoppers into brick-and-mortar stores; a channel to turn TV, print, billboard and online advertising into sales; a payment device; a way of letting consumers share and recommend retailers; and even a tool that allows them to call you if they really need to.
M-commerce even covers a range of services and offerings that make the consumer experience in an actual shop more informative and productive; and it delivers a whole host of services that retailers can use on the shop floor to improve the efficiency and customer service of their staff, cut checkout lines and allow for more up-selling and cross-selling opportunities.
And as such, mobile is something that anyone who is in the business of selling, or buying, anything – be it digital goods, real world goods, services, content or ideas – should be looking into.
To many people m-commerce is a natural extension of e-commerce: the selling of stuff on the web moving to the mobile channel. In many cases, m-commerce is simply the mobile version of e-commerce, only using the phone rather than a desk-bound PC or a laptop. (Which is another interesting point. Is shopping on a laptop or a tablet m-commerce? Indeed, is shopping on a digital kiosk while out and about m-commerce too?)
But this belies some inherent differences between online web services and those accessed via mobile. These differences are often subtle, but are hugely important, such as taking into account how the phone’s screen differs not only in size, but also in orientation and aspect ratio to a computer screen, the processing power of the phone, the ability – or not – of the phone to multitask, and the fact that the phone may be connected via a mobile network that will have variable – not to mention questionable – bandwidth.
But the subtleties of mobile go much deeper than these important technical considerations. Mobile commerce is also a psychological shift for the consumer. A person’s mobile phone is sacrosanct to him or her and incredibly personal. It is also (ironically, considering it’s a communication device) very private. This personal nature needs to be reflected in how a business uses the mobile channel to connect with a consumer.
Anyone looking to engage consumers in mobile commerce also needs to look at where and when the consumer is accessing a brand or a retailer’s website with his phone. Making sure that the consumer’s experience matches not only each device’s peculiarities, but also the peccadilloes and even time and location of its user, is a huge challenge; and this is what separates m-commerce from e-commerce to an even greater degree than what separates brick-and-mortar stores from their online renderings.
It will take you on a wild roller-coaster ride of thrills and spills, providing a brief history of e-commerce, the rise of the mobile phone and, more pertinently, the mobile web, as well as looking specifically at how mobile is playing out in the retail space.
With my young son set to be a consumer in his own right when I deem it time to start giving him pocket money, businesses like yours need to be ready for the fact that he and millions like him will not only be digital natives (that generation growing up now that has never not known the Internet), but they will be mobile digital natives. And they will want to do all manner of commerce using their mobiles. I would go so far as to say that computers as we know them will disappear, being viewed by my son’s generation as clunky, bulky and bedeviled by poor interface (unless we get more touchscreen and voice control). Everything will be done on mobile devices, with touchscreens. These will be everywhere, an integral part of life.
We have some way to go before we get to this, but as we stand at the start of the long road that is mobile commerce, any business – your business – needs to know what mobile offers now, what mobile commerce is doing globally, and where this is likely to go in the next couple of years.