Neil Michel bought .mobi top-level domains as soon as they were available without consulting his bosses. As eMedia Director of Prosper magazine in Sacramento, Calif., he saw it as his duty to claim ownership of the mobile domain names before anyone else could capitalize on the company’s brand name. He managed to snag ProsperMag.mobi and ProsperMagazine.mobi but not Prosper.mobi.
“At the time I registered them, no one knew .mobi existed,” Michel said. “I just did it and told [my bosses] we did.” The .mobi names went on sale on September 26, 2006, but only recently has awareness of the top-level domains become more pervasive. But even as the domains are being registered, there is still some doubt about their relevancy in an iPhone world where the full Web-browsing experience is finally coming to the cell phone.
The .mobi (also known as dotMobi) company is the informal name of the mTLD Top Level Domain firm appointed and approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and is backed by mobile operators, Internet companies and device makers with investment by companies such as Ericsson, Google, GSM Association, Hutchison, Microsoft, Nokia, Orascom Telecom, Samsung, Syniverse, T-Mobile, Telefonica Moviles, TIM, Visa and Vodaphone.
While the idea for .mobi domains was a Nokia brainstorm that dates back to 2000, it wasn’t until March 2004 that 10 companies signed on to a .mobi consortium. In July 2005, ICANN approved the top-level domain and in May 2006, select big brand companies were invited to buy their domains before this was open to the general public.
A typical .mobi website is supposed to be formatted for easy display on a mobile phone. That means, in most cases, simple text, few if any graphics and content that is in an easy-to-read summary form. Ads can be placed in a .mobi environment – sometimes as a page before the content, sometimes placed between pages of content. More image-friendly banner ads for .mobi can be employed, as advertisers CNET, The Disney Channel, Zagat and the wildly popular “High School Musical” have done.
Michel says that buying the domains is “nothing – developing it is another story.” And that seems to be the hang-up right now with the .mobi explosion. While around 700,000 .mobi names have been registered so far, people like Michel are developing them for a very slow rollout. In the case of Prosper magazine, the publication in the last year redesigned its print magazine and its website and went through a hiring spurt before they could even think about their .mobi properties.
Finding Mobile Footing
Their .mobi dilemma is a case study in grappling with a .mobi strategy that fits in with a company’s overall business plan and vision of what they want to deliver to their customers versus what can be monetized over .mobi. “The game is changing under our feet,” Michel says, “because of the new more realistic browser experiences coming from the iPhone and others like it.” He wonders if the iPhone will allow them to do something in a more traditional Web browser environment, or if it would be better to cater to the 200 million handsets in America that may have limited browser capabilities.
Since Prosper is a regional magazine aimed at the Sacramento Valley area at large, Michel wonders what will be valuable to that audience in a mobile environment. It won’t be a 2,000-word article, he says. Plus, Prosper’s main website has a lot of video on it. “In a handheld, the video is a joke,” he says. “We can’t put our video into the .mobi domain.” In terms of mobile advertising, they are focusing on the mobile ad banner for now. “Until advertisers themselves have a .mobi strategy, we don’t have anything.”
Some mobile commerce networks are glad .mobi is around but don’t see a huge impact on their business yet. Dan Wright, CEO of mobile commerce portal mPoria, sees visibility gaining. “If the retailer sees value in .mobi and the customers do, then it does impact our business,” Wright says. He adds that “a good portion of our merchants are using .mobi. If they ask us if they should use it, we say it certainly is good to have. At least you can be found on mobile.”
Wright says that right now mPoria powers m-commerce sites on the mobile Web to help them sell their stuff. They provide the front end and the back end and the hosting for the sites. Medio is their mobile advertising partner. Wright says mPoria has seen 300 percent growth quarter-over-quarter using their current model, and that if .mobi helps their merchants’ marketing, “then that’s good for us.”
On the software side, some companies are still trying to decide what the mobile customer prefers. GoWare, makers of custom software for mobile publishers, perceives a disconnect. Jason Thibeault, CTO and co-founder of GoWare, says that “among mobile software providers that are dedicated to the mobile Web, there is a big disconnect. There are a lot of different Webs right now. The desktop user is very comfortable but the mobile Web user wants quick, efficient access [to content].”
He says that while .mobi is still in its infancy, GoWare is doing its best to integrate coupons and ads into a .mobi platform. “We are getting the targeted marketing messages to your mobile phone,” he notes. Yahoo, he says, is just serving banner ads. He wonders, who wants a banner ad in a .mobi environment? Thibeault believes .mobi is not visible enough right now. “The content sites are not sure they want to commit the research – not to the .mobi bandwagon right now.” He says he knows a lot of sites that are using their main top-level domain to serve up their mobile websites and not conforming to the simplicity of presentation the .mobi Web would seem to promise.
The folks at .mobi itself are proactive in their quest to put a spotlight on the possibilities of the domain. James Pearce, VP of technology at .mobi, thinks that as far as Web relevance, .mobi prevails even now. “A lot of people are not brave enough to type in an arbitrary dot-com Web address because the content will be irrelevant to them when they’re out and about with their phone.” He’s convinced .mobi will be automatically relevant and faster no matter what kind of browser your phone has. His current mission is to make .mobi part of the “consumer vernacular,” because he admits to a certain chicken-and-egg conundrum at the moment where content needs to be built out ahead of the platform but marketing it will be needed too.
Mobile ad networks such as start-up AdMob are seeing tremendous growth without customizing for .mobi. They showed more than 1 billion mobile ads in just 28 days last summer. Companies such as AOL and Microsoft are acquiring mobile ad companies to add to their offerings. Microsoft is also expanding its mobile search efforts in a partnership with Sprint to allow easier Web searches on mobile phones.
And while developing for the .mobi experience on phones has been seen as a complex ordeal, executives at .mobi have also been proactive in quashing rumors about the new domain. Various blogs have dismissed .mobi as nothing more than a way for .mobi investors to get more money. The rebuttal: Investors are building out platforms and tools but it all takes time because huge companies such as Google don’t turn their product life cycles on a dime, and many initiatives inside these big companies are pretty confidential until launched. New tools are available at the dev.mobi site and they are pushing their mobile phone database and a content directory.
Others complain that .mobi is not releasing their premium brand and generic names to buyers yet so they can drive up the prices. In fact, the first load of premium names went on sale in September and the schedule was always to sell those names on the one-year anniversary of .mobi in bursts from September to January 2008. Some have said that waiting too long to auction those names has hurt the .mobi market, but executives at .mobi state that they always had the “long-term view” in mind, and essentially waited for the good content-making tools to be released. In fact, Google recently announced the launch of AdSense for Mobile, a campaign to encourage ad placement for sites designed specifically for mobile phones. Yahoo and AOL Time Warner have similar mobile- centric ad networks.
As far as the criticism that too many .mobi sites are still dark, it is true that parking pages are out there (the ProsperMag. mobi page is still unfilled), with about half of the .mobi registered names still not hooked up to DNS servers, but real sites are coming live every day. The .mobi people say they also provide free tools to help content get live as easily as possible. They say that there are about 5 million pages indexed on Google with .mobi addresses. They add that big brands such as ESPN, BMW, BusinessWeek, Amtrak, AAA and Fox News, to name just a few, all have .mobi presences.
.mobi’s Pearce indicates that with the high profile of the iPhone, the realities of surfing the Web on your phone look more attractive. But he cautions that it’s the diversity of handsets that is holding developers back. And while the iPhone’s browser is a full browser, the network is slow and won’t get any faster until sometime later in 2008 when the phone is likely to be 3G-ready. Yet the idea of a “cool” Web experience on your phone is largely due to Apple’s product. And while Apple sold 1 million iPhones in its first three months of selling, that’s still a far cry from the 200 million-plus handsets in use in the U.S.
Some detractors have also stated that the need for .mobi is completely unnecessary because sites can detect whether a Web page is being called by a phone (and in some cases what brand of phone), and serve up a more mobile-friendly dotcom landing page especially designed for handsets. The folks at .mobi argue that if dot-com domains fulfilled every surfer’s demands there wouldn’t be any need for .org, .it, .de, .fr or .biz.
For those in a quandary over whether to .mobi or not to .mobi, there is a .mobi Advisory Group that is independent of .mobi the company – financially and agenda-wise. The group gathers feedback and suggests initiatives to .mobi developers. Currently they are looking at such issues as mobile advertising, PPC, mobile commerce, browsing, mobile email and the mobile Net for developing countries.
Pearce says that since operators are beginning to flatten their tariffs and open out the access, the stage is set for the “culture, sites and services” over .mobi to explode. “We’ll look back on this as the time the mobile Web found its feet, like in 1997 when flat tariffs enticed a mass of content onto the fixed Web.”
In the meantime, Prosper magazine’s Michel has until December to ready a .mobi site to be part of an Apple demo, and appreciates the deadline pressure.