Mobile Prophecies

The end of the year is a time to look back and reflect on what has happened over the previous 12 months. The pace of change in the digital landscape is so fast that it seems every year brings groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting news. In 2010, there was the launch of the iPad – Apple’s mission to bring the tablet computer to the mainstream. Microsoft announced the launch of a new Windows Mobile to compete with Apple, RIM BlackBerry, and Google’s Android, last of which has seen tremendous growth over the last year.

Let’s take a look forward though, at some things that will happen in the mobile device landscape in 2011. Here are four predictions for next year.

The iPhone Will Finally Debut On Verizon

This is an easy one. It’s been rumored for at least two years, but in 2011, it will finally happen: the iPhone will come to Verizon. The size of Verizon’s subscription base is just too large for Apple to ignore. Android has been dominating 2010 on Verizon as recent reports show Google’s mobile OS accounts for 80 percent of all smartphone activations on that network.

There is virtually no doubt that the iPhone will be a success on Verizon as analysts’ sales projections seem to start at 9 million Verizon iPhones sold in 2011. What I wonder is whether Verizon’s vaunted network will retain its status with all the surfing, searching, navigating, and streaming that iPhone users do. Because Verizon has handled the Android usage bodes well for the carrier having a great 2011.

Foursquare Will Hit 12 Million Users (Yawn)

In 2010, Foursquare saw huge growth. The location-based social network application, which lets people earn virtual “badges” on their smartphones for “check-ins” at real-world places, surpassed 5 million users in December. That would seem to be a pretty big user base for a service that, having launched in March 2009, is not even two years old. However, a high number of users does not mean a high level of usage. While I am writing this, the Chicago Blackhawks are playing in front of a sold-out crowd at the United Center. There are just 68 Foursquare “check-ins” in an arena filled with 21,523 people. I suppose that’s a “swarm” badge for those people, but it’s a tiny percentage of attendees.

At this point, Foursquare is a curiosity and I believe many people sign up for the service and use it only intermittently. At some point, it’s going to have to provide consumers with more compelling reasons to check in more regularly. I think the curiosity-driven user base will continue its aggressive growth, but the engagement that will be important for advertisers and revenue will continue to lag.

Privacy Will Be a Big Concern

One common complaint I’ve heard from both users and non-users about Foursquare and other location-based services, like Loopt, Gowalla, and Facebook Places, is that people just don’t always want other people to know where they are. A smartphone has, all in one place, a user’s e-mail, their Web surfing habits, and search habits that can be tied to a unique phone ID and a physical location. While many marketers are gleeful about the targeting capabilities that mobile marketing can provide, it is wise to be cautious.

This week, The Wall Street Journal’s ongoing look at privacy in the digital age had a mobile wrinkle: the newspaper uncovered an iPhone app that was leaking physical location data to a major mobile ad network without the user’s permission. This is the type of revelation that motivates regulatory bodies to greater scrutiny. I expect the standardization of privacy guidelines for mobile to be a major topic in 2011.

Marketers Will Be Playing Games

On the fun side of things, I couldn’t help but notice that the top 10 paid apps on iTunes were all games. Games also made up seven of the top 10 most downloaded free apps. The breadth of the game types was also striking. The games atop the list included what are traditionally called “hardcore games” like Electronic Arts’ “Battlefield Bad Company” and “Need For Speed,” as well as casual games like “Angry Birds” and “Cut the Rope.”

The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 34 percent of Americans played games on their phones. As smartphone penetration increases, this number should continue to rise with younger demographics leading the way. For marketers, mobile games represent a great opportunity for engagement with a consumer. The ability to subsidize a paid game with advertising to make it free or to add downloadable free bonus levels or characters to a game adds a halo to a brand. I expect to see marketers delve into this area in a big way in 2011.

Those are some things to think about in the coming year. What are your predictions for 2011?

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