MAC keynotes: Facebook feature phones are the future

16 Nov 2011

Mobile executives discussed the changing state of the mobile ecosystem during the opening keynotes at the Mobile Asia Congress Wednesday. The key takeaways boil down to three things redefining the mobile ecosystem as we know it: Facebook, multi-screen strategies and – yes – feature phones.

1. Feature phones rule OK

Sanjay Kapoor, CEO of Bharti Airtel, said that feature phones and basic phones will still dominate India’s mobile market for the foreseeable future. “In 2013, feature phones will account for 55% of the market, and basic phones will account for 36%,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean low demand for apps, not least because more and more feature phones will ship with embedded mobile browsers enabling access to browser-based apps, he said. “Because of this, in the future, there will be no difference between feature phones and smartphones from the customer point of view.”

Kapoor said the real challenge for India’s operators was the market’s open, unbundled structure where customers can buy their access plan, devices and apps from separate providers to get the best deal.

“The challenge for operators is how to stitch this together to create the best customer experience, because the best customer experience is what will win,” he said. “That’s a challenge for large unbundled prepaid markets like India. The customer experience will determine success regardless of where you are in the ecosystem.”

2. Social networking makes everything better, especially feature phones

Vaughan Smith, VP of mobile partnerships at Facebook, talked up the importance of social networking to add value to mobile apps and services, and positioned his company as a partner-ready platform to make that happen.

“We are a partner-centric company that want to help build social into your service or application and make it a better experience,” Smith said, citing Facebook’s success in the photo hosting and gaming segments as examples.

Kapoor agreed that partnerships with companies like Facebook were crucial for targeting rural areas where feature phones and basic phones are the lowest common denominator.

“In India, with 700 million rural users, you need to create something tailor-made for them, that can only happen when Facebook and operators come together,.” He said. “It’s not about taking food off the other person’s table, it’s about creating new food, and we can create enough without cannibalizing each other.”

Smith also added that retention for Facebook’s Java app (i.e. people who use it the next day after the first day they try it) is higher than for its iPhone app. “It’s not the better experience of the two, but for markets where feature phones are the norm, it’s better than the existing experience.”

3. Multi-screen is disruptive – OS fragmentation even more so

Jin Woo So, president and CEO of SK Planet, said that multi-screen platforms would be the next big disruption in the mobile ecosystem.

“Connectivity across multiple devices will disrupt the value chain, from provisioning to delivery,” he said. “This will shape the industry into something different from what we have today.”

So said that the key components of multi-screen services included device personalization, seamless video play (with consistent QoS across all devices) and the cloud.

But he added that OS fragmentation – particularly among Android platforms – “makes it very difficult” to deploy a multi-screen strategy.

Put another way, OS fragmentation is disrupting multi-screen’s ability to disrupt the mobile industry.

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