Five Mobile Media Issues that Will Define the Future

This Mobile Media blog launched in January, just a week before the unveiling of the iPad. During those pre-iPad, pre-Facebook Places, pre-Android-everywhere days, newsrooms were still focused on rolling out iPhone apps, Foursquare had only a quarter-of-a-million members, and the tablet getting all the buzz was the Plastic Logic Que.

Amidst the tectonic shifts since then, a few guiding themes have begun to emerge that are important to journalism. Some are questions more than answers, but they are topics to focus on over the next few months as the mobile ecosystem continues to develop.

1. Mobile devices allow for more hybrid journalism

The debate of the past few years has been bloggers and “citizen journalists” vs. professional reporters, editors and photographers. The reality lies somewhere in between, and mobile devices are starting to reveal the potential hybrid news gathering methods of the future.

Organizations like CNN have jumped on board in recent years with efforts like iReport, but mobile technology allows highly networked collaboration between journalists and citizens to be even more fluid.

Let’s face it: the people formerly known as the audience outnumber professional journalists, and increasingly they have smart phones and other mobile news gathering devices. These tools allow people to become ad hoc news publishers or startup, digital-only independent media outlets. But they also let traditional media organizations expand their outreach efforts and allow anyone in the community to become a correspondent-for-a-day.

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2. Everyone is looking for ways to make money off mobile

With everyone from Rupert Murdoch on down looking for mobile devices to “save” journalism, the need to make money on these new platforms is not going to get the 10-years-to-profit grace period that the Web got.

According to analysts, the money is out there. Mobile ads alone are worth $600 million, up 50 percent from 2009. That is why Apple and Google paid a total of $1 billion dollars for their respective mobile ad network purchases earlier this year.

But while Apple and Google may be two of the biggest players on the block, they are not the only threats to local ad revenues. Yelp, Facebook, Foursquare and others have their eye on location-specific, hyper-local advertising revenues. Legacy media organizations that are still struggling to refine their Web ad sales strategies are in for a fight.

Murdoch’s paid mobile strategy, which mirrors his Web pay wall approach, has gained some favor since the launch of the iPad. So far, consumers have shown more willingness to pay for mobile apps than they have for desktop Web content. But until those approaches can be refined to allow true in-app subscriptions and unified print-Web-mobile subscriptions, success in that arena may be limited to larger publications.

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3. Geolocation a defining feature of mobile content

It sounds obvious, but place is the defining feature of mobile content. As cell phones continue to evolve into mini-computers, the ability to pinpoint location enables a slew of services, some obvious and others still to be discovered.

Easy-to-use publishing tools and free distribution on the Web made blogs, YouTube, Flickr and even Craigslist possible and popular. Journalists now need to be thinking about mobile devices and how the ability to develop context around location changes how newsrooms need to do business.

If you are creating content for handheld devices and are not taking advantage of location capabilities, you are missing an opportunity to truly engage your mobile audience.

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4. iPhone vs. Android and Web vs. apps debate

Aside from making for great copy in the trade press, the battle of mobile platforms has significant short and long-term implications for journalism, depending on who ask.

Apple’s iPhone set a new standard for smart phones when it was released in 2007. In response, Google decided to give away its Android OS to compete. The move is paying off. There have been more than 60 Android-based smart phones released so far, and in aggregate they are now outselling the iOS-based iPhone. While Apple’s growing pains in dealing with content creators (see below) have been well-documented, app developers are going to need to support both operating systems for the foreseeable future.

The other ongoing dilemma, mobile websites vs. device-native apps, is closely related to the iPhone vs. Android debate. With Apple’s banning of cross-platform development tools earlier this year, building apps to support both Android and iOS devices (not to mention Windows Mobile, Palm and BlackBerry phones) will be a major undertaking, especially for smaller organizations.

Developing an HTML5 mobile website, on the other hand, can be significantly cheaper; and the site can be accessed by most mobile browsers. But there are some trade-offs. Some functions, such as the camera, compass and accelerometer, are only available to native apps.

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5. Apple’s control issues present roadblocks for media

Apple’s current dominance in the mobile market makes its struggles to adapt to a self-appointed gatekeeper role a bit of a roadblock for media companies. For starters, the company is becoming infamous for an inability to sort out its app approval process.

It is sometimes humorous, but more often troubling, when a rejection appears to involve editorial content judgments.

On the revenue side, publishers are currently unable to sell digital subscriptions or access customer information for content sold via the iTunes store. Apple is free to run its own business as it wishes, but if it intends to keep publishers from looking for viable alternatives, some compromises will have to be reached soon.

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