Brief Encounter: Richard Mower, PocketSurfer
What about the mobile Web away from mobile phones? While the dongle/laptop combo is the primary choice for some, PocketSurfer has other ideas.
For many, mobility remains the most obvious next step for the Internet. However, most of the talk regarding the mobile Web as 'Web 3.0' has coincided with the mass adoption and continued development of mobile phone technology. Its ubiquitous nature has been one of the key drivers in the popularity of the mobile Web. But there are still reservations with the vast majority of mobile phones. The tiny screens, the awkward interface and confusing operator contracts mean that although the technology is available to users, many just don't bother.
But what about the mobile Web away from mobile phones? While the dongle/laptop combo is the primary choice for some, PocketSurfer has other ideas.
Looking like a cross between a Sony PSP and a Nintendo DS, PocketSurfer offers free Internet access using mobile phone signals as opposed to WiFi. First impressions are that the screen is clear and sharp and accessing the Web is easy and works great. Our only reservation is that the interface is not much better than mobile phones. The current mouse alternative is slightly awkward.
Richard Mower, VP Marketing & Partnerships at PocketSurfer speaks to NMK about where the failures lie in current mobile Web technology and why mobile Web is the future for businesses, marketers and the general consumer.
How did PocketSurfer come to fruition?
In 2000, as consumers we got very excited about the idea of having the Internet in the palm of our hand. There was a lot of press and huge claims being made. But the experience was horrible – the screens were really small, the keyboards were non-existent or really tiny, the costs were prohibitive and worst, the average page would take four or five seconds to load.
When we talked to friends in the industry, they claimed that the problem was ‘pictures’ – pictures caused the Web-pages to be slow – and that the solution would be a parallel mobile web called ‘WAP’, where people would only receive little tid-bits of the page. This didn’t seem right to us, we wanted the real-Web in the palm of our hand. Raja, our technical director and owner of the patents, knew pictures had very little to do with it.
He instantly recognised that the issues were not only related to bandwidth, but also the lack of processing power and memory within the form factor of a handheld device – so, he created a parallel-processing environment which solves each of the key drawbacks related to the wireless Web. For this he’s secured 17 patents and another 80 or so are pending.
Who do you envisage purchasing the device?
The PocketSurfer is the first truly mass-market mobile Internet device. We have the broadest imaginable breadth of owners – from caravaners to Facebookers, and from IT systems analysts to brick layers.
In my mind, there are currently two barriers hindering the mass adoption of the mobile Web. Firstly it’s about user experience – pure and simple, Much of the mobile Web is WAP-based. It’s slow, clumsy and has an awkward interface. I’m not talking about the high-end iPhones and smart phones – I’m referring to the handsets your parents or technophobe aunt has. Screens are small, buttons are fiddly; you can make a cup of tea while you’re waiting for some pages to download.
Second off, it’s still very expensive for the average person to access the Internet via their mobiles. People are still, rightly, worried about what nasty surprise they will get come the end of the month. Operators are trying to address this, but there’s a long way to go. With PocketSurfer, our users get 12 months free, high quality, high speed mobile Internet experience.
Do you think people are willing to pay for mobile Web when they can get a full laptop for about the same price?
As I said above, I think there are two clear issues that really separate PocketSurfer here. Firstly, the cost. For around £150 you can get a PocketSurfer and enjoy free, high-speed Internet access where ever you are. You have 20 hours per month or alternatively, you can pay £5.99 and get unlimited usage. Vodafone’s minimum dongle price is itself £180 per annum PLUS the cost of your laptop.
Secondly, there’s mobile, and there’s really mobile: How mobile are you when you have to lug about your laptop with you? PocketSurfer slips into a pocket or bag easily. Plus you don’t need to find a table and open your laptop up. Hundreds of laptops are stolen everyday within one metre of their owners.
I’m still unconvinced that people would prefer to use PocketSurfer instead of their laptop. For instance I might check the football scores on it but would not necessarily purchase products online.
It’s interesting you say that, because the fourth most popular activity on our device is actually bank transactions. I’ve had feedback from customers telling me that they prefer using the PocketSurfer because it is actually more discreet than a laptop. Along with personal banking, our most popular activities will surprise no one – most people use PocketSurfer to access news, results, travel info, social networks as well as their emails of course
There are already many mobile phones which offer full Internet access. Why would their owners choose PocketSurfer?
The majority of mobile phones still run WAP. Even Web enabled phones offer a really poor user experience (slow, small screen, non-intuitive navigation). These were built as primarily telephonic communications devices, then have had Web enablement built around that. We started the other way around. Fast, high quality mobile Web at a realistic price.
But the reason why many think mobile will be the next stage of the Web is because of convergence. The fact that I have my phone with me every second of the day is why I use it to access the Web. It’s not great but I rarely have to do a bank transaction immediately, I just check the football scores quickly, or check for the nearest restaurant – all these I can do easily on my phone, which I have with me anyway.
Just to address a couple of things there. There’s an interesting stat that shows how many Blackberry users actually also carry a separate handset, in the same way people with MP3 enabled phones still carry their iPod. Mobile phone screens are rubbish for the Web, they aren’t designed for it and the PocketSurfer easily fits into a bag or jacket pocket.
With regards to how people use the mobile Web, it varies a lot by user group. For example,, we have found that one peak time for usage is Friday, early evening when people are waiting for their mates in the pub. Instead of just reading the scores, you could get the full match report, access images and and so on – giving you even more to discuss. It becomes part of the social interaction.
I think I have to mention the cost factor again. Mobile Web is still only available to those that can afford it. Operators are still charging a lot for data transfers, and people are unsure of the costs.
I genuinely believe what we are doing with PocketSurfer is not only cool, it will revolutionise the Web. There’s a wealth, almost infinite amount of info out there and it should be a basic human right to have access to it. Millions of people are excluded from this, which is what we hope to address with PocketSurfer.
But it’s not exactly cheap. £150 is a lot of money to lay down initially. While free access is all well and good, I’m not sure if I could afford the actual device.
I think it’s really a case of satisfying a consumer need and being fit-for-purpose. I think if you decided, ‘yup, I want to access the Web wherever I am, with a device that delivers that well’ you’ll be hard pressed to find a cheaper alternative. We don’t even sign people up to contracts and if they want more usage, or want an additional year, it’s entirely up to them.
Why do you think there is this clamour to make the Web more portable?
We are becoming more reliant on the web in our daily lives. This is important for essential daily activities, like banking and email but also for making better use of our time when we are out (why not do your Tesco shop online while you are on a bus or order that book you keep forgetting to get and pick it up in the store when you’re in town?
What are the next steps for PocketSurfer?
We are beginning to see more and more brands looking at the mobile Web as platform for advertising. I know the mobile Web and advertising has been a hot topic for years now but with a decent screen we can make the click through rates much higher and deliver a much richer advertiser message.
Uniquely, we control a space at the top of the screen, so we can deliver messages relevant to exactly what the user is viewing. For example, if someone is viewing www.Sainsbury.com or has used a search term such as ‘bbq food’, we can serve a Tesco ad in the banner. Our device also offers location based marketing, so we can target by proximity to certain stores, for example.
What does PocketSurfer feel about the privacy issues? After all, you’ve mentioned previously that you can see exactly what sites I’m accessing when using PocketSurfer.
All our ads and offers will be opt-in only. On top of that, while we can see which devices are where, these are figures and we cannot pin point each user – nor would we want to. We have so much detail because we want to make the ads more relevant. We understand that any ads that seem intrusive or irrelevant can actually do harm to brands. We’re very aware of that, and because we control what ads we display, we give brands a much more valuable ad platform.