Ready for the Mobile Web Ride?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lusting after the new iPhone. I haven’t bought one yet, mainly because of a combination of Summertime Inertia Syndrome and the thought of getting hitched to another cell phone provider.

While dreaming, I’ve also been browsing the new App Store and have begun to get that ol’ zeitgeist tingle. You know, the vague feeling you get when you start to understand that we’re on the verge of Something Big. And it’s got me thinking about everything from neurophysiology to the global hive mind to the fact we’re in the midst of another big change that we’ve only begun to understand.

Understand, while it was the catalyst, these thoughts aren’t really about the iPhone. This isn’t some fanboy rant. This column is really about the first real glimpses of the cyberspace-meatspace merger and the disruptive changes that merger will bring. Apple doesn’t have a lock on it. It just seems to be out front right now.

Since the beginning of the digital age and the Internet, we’ve all been pretty much tethered to our desktops. Sure, the mobile Internet has been around a while. But only the most avid (and myopic) mobile boosters among us would actually say that Web browsing on a cell phone (or accessing mobile services) is anything like the experience from our computers. Certain things like e-mail and text messaging “work” (the legions of CrackBerry addicts are proof of that), but accessing other content is usually a hurry-up-and-wait experience that pales compared to our desktop experience. Up to this point, the links between the Internet and mobile devices have been mainly stripped-down versions of desktop apps that seem to emphasize the worst of both worlds.

But that’s changing now because mobile application designers finally realize they need to develop applications for people who are mobile. They have different needs than desktop users, access information in different circumstances than desktop users, and use devices that aren’t just miniature versions of desktop displays.

Plus, we’re seeing a recognition that location matters. If you’re out and about with your mobile device, where you are changes both your information needs and your experience with that information. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to use Google Maps on a cell phone while driving. Being mobile changes everything.

Think about how you answer the phone today. Before cell phones, people often answered with “Jones residence” if it was a call to a home phone or “Mr. Jenkins’ office” if it was a call to a business. We did this because phones were tethered to physical locations and calls were made to places.

Today, most of us answer the phone by stating our names. With mobile technology we call people, not places. We could be calling anywhere (and where doesn’t matter, generally speaking), so it’s reassuring that we know we got the person we’re trying to call.

Another change many of us have experienced is that we don’t remember things like we used to. How many times have you had to look up a friend’s phone number in your mobile phone address book even though you call that person all the time? You don’t remember the number because you don’t have to: you call from the directory and may never even see the number. And you don’t see the number when she calls you because of caller ID and your address book. Because you never have to enter or remember the number, you don’t remember it.

Nicholas Carr discusses this phenomenon in a recent issue of “The Atlantic.” He writes about how recent neurological studies about information consumption seem to indicate the Internet is changing the way people actually read and think. Technology isn’t just changing the way we work and play, it’s also changing our minds. And this change isn’t just confined to the Net: the crawlers, pop-ups, quick cuts, and short info-bursts we experience from TV are a direct result of the changes the Internet has brought to our society and our brains. We built the “One Machine” that is the global Internet, and now it’s changing us.

So what does this have to do with the new iPhone and other devices that recognize these changes (such as Amazon’s Kindle) and seamlessly integrate the Internet with our lives so the boundaries between us and the Net begin to truly dissolve for the first time? Everything. Just as mobile technology has changed the way we work and think and play (always on, always connected, always expecting access to our network of family, friends, and colleagues) and access to information over the Internet is changing our brains, the Internet no longer being tethered to the desktop will bring about another change. We’re entering an age when we’ll have access to all information, all the time, anywhere.

Probably the most explicit example of this with the new iPhone is Checkout SmartShop, an application that lets you get product reviews, pricing comparisons, and even other local stores that carry the item you’re looking at simply by entering its barcode number into the iPhone. Sure, other phones have had similar applications, but the combination of pricing comparison with the Internet and the application knowing where you are is truly disruptive. It changes retailing. It changes advertising. It changes the whole equation of how consumers deal with products. It changes everything.

Think about it: if you could go into a store, pick up a product, and instantly know not only what other places are charging for it and what others think about it but also where else you could buy it nearby, how would your shopping behavior change? What about if you could instantly buy what you’re looking at online with the same ease you could buy it at the store?

So much of what we marketers do now is predicated on assumptions borne out of decades (if not centuries) of media, information, and consumption experiences being separated. We believe we need to build awareness on TV so that consumers remember to buy our products when they’re away from the TV. We need to drive response on the Web so we can capture attention when someone sits at his computer ostensibly doing something other than thinking about our products and services. We have to create print ads that are compelling enough that they stay with readers (perhaps even in the form of a physical coupon they cut out and carry with them) long enough to drive their response to do what we want them to do. Media, information, and our lives are separate spheres that we strive to integrate with our messages and tactics.

At least they used to be.

Where’s all this going? I’d be nuts to tell you I know. But a look at these devices that integrate information, media, and our lives anytime and anywhere — and the mounting evidence that technology actually has the power to rewire our brains and reconfigure the way we live our lives — makes it clear that Big Changes are on the way. We’ve got a preview now. It’s time to start charting the new course.

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