24 Apr 2008, 1:56 a.m.

The End of Mowser is Not the End of the Mobile Web

In the last few days there has been a certain amount of rather sensationalistic and poorly informed commentary floating around on tech sites and blogs, predicting the immediate death of the mobile web. For example, this piece on CNET, and The Register's dramatically titled A Requiem for the Mobile Web.

And what is the basis for this doom-and-gloom mongering? Well, it turns out that a poorly-marketed twelve-month-old startup, named Mowser, which has never been able to attract VC, and seemingly staked its future entirely on its ability to attract VC, has called it a day.

That's it.

The End of Mowser

Mowser's offering, in a nutshell, was a wholly ad-funded service which adapts web sites, allowing them comfortably to be viewed on the small screens of mobile handsets. This process is known as transcoding, and is nothing new or original, as we'll soon see.

There are many reasons why I don't believe that the failure of Mowser allows us to make any predictions, positive or negative, for the future of the mobile web. The most obvious of these is the simple fact that whilst Mowser's technology was very promising, their business model was flawed.

Now, you'll need to bear in mind that there are several companies out there, perhaps most noticeably OpenWave and Novarra, who are making a not-so-small fortune selling web transcoding services, and that this fact was conveniently overlooked by both CNET and The Register. The difference between all of these companies is that whilst Openwave/Novarra are selling their services to mobile operators, in exchange for real money, Mowser were giving away their service to consumers, in exchange for showing them ads.

Could it ever have worked? It's anyone's guess, but let's have a look at the criteria that a consumer would have to meet before they would be sufficiently motivated to actually use Mowser's service. The user must:

  1. Wish to view non-mobile websites on their mobile handset; and yet
  2. Own a mobile handset/browser combination which does not do a good job of displaying non-mobile web pages
  3. Have heard of Mowser
  4. Be willing to open their mobile browser, type in Mowser's URL, wait for Mowser to load, and then type in the URL of the site which they wish to visit
  5. Be willing to be shown advertisements, as a kind of payment in return for the ability to browse a stripped-down version of the public web on a handset which they paid for, on a data plan which they pay for, no doubt handsomely

Furthermore, they need to do all of that in sufficiently enormous numbers that they provide a viable target market for an ad-funded, direct-to-consumer proposition.

I'm told by those in the know that the magic number of users, viewers or readers that it takes to make advertisers sit up and take notice is one million. I don't know how many users Mowser had, or claimed to have. However, bearing in mind that I've worked on the mobile web for longer than Mowser even existed, and had never heard of them before this week, I find it hard to believe that one million consumers even knew what Mowser did, let alone could have been tempted to use the service regularly.

The medium is irrelevant: Mowser failed as a business.

A Different Angle

There's another angle here too, which has been overlooked by commentators. I don't believe that this was the case here, but let's try it on for size: one could suggest that the success of a transcoding company such as Mowser should be directly inversely proportional to the success of the mobile web. That is, as more and more mobile websites come online, and more and more full websites offer mobile alternatives, or adapt themselves gracefully to mobile devices, the value of a third party transcoding service diminishes. Thus the demise of Mowser could be presented as evidence that the mobile web is absolutely flying right now.

Conjecture aside, the simple fact is that the mobile web is going through an enormous period of growth: at OverTheAir 2008, BBC mobile head Matthew Postgate pointed out that over the three and a half years up to mid 2007, the BBC's mobile site picked up 1.5 million users. In the following six months, it gained another million. That's an incredible acceleration in growth, and it's a big pointer as to how exciting 2008 and beyond are going to be.

Of course, the most successful sites and applications are going to be those whose mobile and desktop versions are seamlessly integrated, and provide the best possible experience available on the device from which they are being accessed. That much is a no-brainer. Facebook is an obvious example of a site that is getting that right already.

A Storm in a Teacup

All in all, I think that this doom mongering is no more than lazy journalism on a slow news day; a storm in a teacup.

Personally, I feel that the column inches would be better devoted to raising awareness of some of the real challenges facing the mobile web, such as the shocking liberties taken by a number of operators which are suffocating innovation at every step. I hope to cover a few of these matters here in due course, so stay tuned.

Many thanks to Ciaran for helping to inspire this rant.

Posted by Simon at 01:53:00 PM