Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's time for government to consider the mobile internet

What do the Apple iPhone, Nokia N97, T-Mobile G1, Samsung Omnia, Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1, Blackberry Storm and Palm Pre have in common?


Yes they are all sleek, carefully-designed handheld gadgets with a focus on usability.

Yes they're also all 3G smartphones - meaning they provide mobile access to email, web and video as well as voice - most supporting free wi-fi as well as mobile telephone networks. 

They are also all relatively new - either released in the last two years, or in the process of release now (with Sony Ericsson investing in a very innovative campaign).

The Independent likes most of them too (Just how smart are smartphones).

However none of them can load a mobile friendly version of most Australian government websites.

Across Australia.gov.au, ATO, Centrelink, Business.gov.au and more - most government departments simply haven't invested in creating a mobile version of their site. 

After a good look around, the most prominent government website I could find with a full mobile version was Multimedia Victoria - try it out on a mobile device.

Is mobile internet actually important?
I'll admit that for a very long time I was a mobile internet skeptic.

I was involved in developing a mobile platforms around the turn of the century, finding at the time we were too far ahead of the market (despite being showcased at several Olympics and winning international mobile awards).

I watched the WAP fiasco from the sidelines - predicting correctly that Australians would not be interested in taking up a service that provided slow and basic access to selected web content at a relatively high cost.

However since the release of the iPhone and others began scrambling to catch up with Apple inthe mobile phone market, I've become more optimistic about the future of the mobile internet.

It is still early days - only 7-16% of mobile phones in Australia were smartphones in October 2008 (depending on whether you believe Telesyte or Gartner). That's between 1.5 and 3 million  phones.

However with improving designs, usability and battery life and falling phone and data costs, Telesyte predicts that 30% of new phones sold in Australia in 2009 will be smartphones, as reported in The Courier-Mail article, Australia braces for the smartphone revolution.

For a country that buys 9 million mobile phones each year (and has more mobile phones than people), that means that another 3 million Australians will be using smartphones by the end of 2009. That's a total of around 6 million smartphone users - or 29% of the market.

Following the same trend, by 2012 the majority of Australians will be using smartphones with full internet connectivity.

Or maybe even sooner if you believe the more bullish figures from Gartner, as reported in the SMH article, Mobile Revolution: It's the year of the Smartphone.

What does this mean for government?
It's clearly still early days for the mobile internet market, however most major commercial news and portal sites already have a mobile version.

Why so? Not because they see a mass market ready to go. 

It's because they want to be prepared for the mass market when it arrives (in 12-24 months), having already established their position and gained the experience to avoid expensive mistakes.

It's also because most content management systems make it relatively easy to offer a mobile version. It's simply a matter of developing a few additional templates, tagging content and using simple scripts to detect they type of user device and serving up the right template and content. If you're more dedicated (or have deeper pockets), content and navigation can be custom-developed for mobile access.

Mobile versions of websites can also be created on-the-fly using services such as Mofuse (see my mobile blog here)

Now I'm not saying that now is the time to throw millions investing in a mobile version of your site. Just as mass market isn't there yet, neither is critical mass for most government departments.

However it's a great time to begin cheap experiments with the medium. Such as finding out how your website looks on mobile devices (ask friends with smartphones), and dipping in a toe by mobile-enabling part of your site - such as media releases.

You can also monitor smartphone use of your website via most website reporting systems - just in case your agency does have a large consistent group of mobile internet users that need special consideration.

This type of experimentation is good preparation for the day in the not-too-distant future when your Minister is asked, or asks, why your department isn't mobile ready.

It will ensure that at least you'll have an intelligent answer, the experience to back it up and the knowledge to implement a full mobile solution when needed.

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