Cellphone and new media — Promised Land?

There is a common lament among online publishers these days, and it goes something like this: If only the internet was invented by a businessman. For online publishers, the internet is free. It’s always been free and that’s why – unless you’re an ISP, a niched content service or a porn site – it’s been so difficult to pry revenue out of it.

So you can imagine online publishers’ delight at the arrival of the cellphone. Now here is an interactive platform that, from the word go, ensures that users pay for interacting with content. You receive news headlines, you pay for the SMS. You enter a competition, you pay for the SMS. You vote in an online poll, you pay for the SMS. It’s perfect. Readers don’t mind coughing up and accept that a payment needs to be made.

Publishers in South Africa have yet to embrace cellphones in any big way, but there has been some dabbling. The SABC’s Newsbreak allows users to dial-in and listen to the news being read over the phone by a professional news reader. News 24 and Mail & Guardian Online offer news headlines and sports results via SMS. Radio programme Media@SAFM offers a free preview of its weekly media programme via SMS. Television programme Carte Blanche has run cellphone vote lines and viewer comment lines in the past.

Of course the cellphone, as a new content platform, has been held back by technology –
small screens, bad resolutions, slow processors and shaky internet connectivity. The cellphone’s first attempt at internet, called WAP, didn’t quite crack it – proving to be expensive, slow and difficult to use.

But enter the new generation of phones. Now cellphones are becoming sophisticated – so sophisticated that they’re starting to meld with palm-top computers. Cellphone screens are getting bigger, have improved resolution and increased ability to handle graphics and text.

Cellphones now have GPRS to surf the net and use MMS to receive pictures. The top Sony Ericsson and Nokia phones are able to view websites with their exact layout. Although the screens may still be too small for intensive surfing, they are now good enough for online publishers to sit up and take notice.

So now the time is ripe. Publishers ignore the power and promise of cellphones at their peril. The new generation cellphones are able to offer publishers a powerful, new channel to deliver content.

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) predicts that usage of cellphones is set to surpass that of PC-based internet coverage. To find out if this is true we need to look no further than Japan. The Japanese are considered to be the pioneers in harnessing cellphones to deliver content. US-based Clickz website says that more people in Japan access the internet via their cellphones than via their PCs. And the world’s second largest newspaper and Japan’s largest, Asahi Shimbun, has been pioneering the delivery of news and sports content via cellphones for some time now.

According to WAN, the most successful service has been its Asahi Nikkan sports site, which has more than a million subscribers paying just under US$1 each for five news and three sports headlines a day, a daily sports column, and sports results.

The newspaper also has other services. One delivers quizzes along with the news, another lets users search Asahi’s archives, and yet another sends breaking news about accidents, disasters and traffic updates. It also offers streaming video news clips up to three times a day. All this, on a cellphone.

Perhaps a glimpse of what’s still to come in South Africa?

Matthew Buckland: Publisher


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