Who Serves The Mobile Web?

In Japan there exists such a thing as keitai bunko, or keitai fiction. Writing for keitai is the practice of writing a mobile phone novel: published, distributed and read on screens no larger than a playing card. It is consumed where all good books are consumed: in Japan’s overcrowded trains, in waiting rooms for doctors and dentists, in toilets and bedrooms and sitting-room couches. Their model is similar to that of blooking – an author (and any author, really, for there are no slush piles) starts a novel and slowly gains an audience as the novel rolls on. And here’s the surprising thing: keitai is closer to mainstream than we are.

The most famous keitai shosetsu (mobile phone novel) is probably Koizora, a semi-autobiographical love story about a girl and a cancer-striken boy. I can say with utmost confidence that it is a big success, because I watched the movie myself on a TV screen in Malaysia. Japan’s cultural exports come in the form of film, music and manga, so I suppose it’s irrelevant that the film started off as digital fiction. But yes, Koizora is a bestseller, and yes, I think it’s sappier than The Notebook.Koizora, or Sky Of Love poster

But Is This Exportable?

The answer? Well I’m not sure. On one hand Japan is famous for its cultural exports, but we have to admit that not everything makes it out of the country. Anime and manga did, but whimsical robot helpers and talking toilet bowls didn’t. Plus we have to remember that Japan has one of the highest mobile phone and broadband penetration rates in the world. Whether or not we can use Japan as an indicator of our digital future remains to be seen.

What I can tell you, and tell you confidently, is that the mobile web is set to explode. Let’s take a look at the numbers: global mobile penetration is at 3.3 billion, or 50% of the world’s population, compared to 21.9% for Internet penetration. I can argue that this number is misleading, because most mobile phones don’t have access to high speed data networks, but then again the point of those numbers is to show you how much more assesible mobile phones are as compared to computers. Taking this down to a personal level: you’re more likely to be with your phone than you are your computer, especially if you’re commuting from one place to another. And if you don’t have 3G access, or your phone doesn’t, then it’s only a matter of time before you buy a new one, or your telco upgrades its infrastructure: the life of a phone is much less than that of a laptop.

The clincher here is probably the amount of larger companies circling this segment of the web. I can point to Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s Blackberry, or Nokia’s app store initiative, but I believe Google’s presence makes a far more compelling case. Google is an ad company. Their business isn’t mobile phones, nor is it open source mobile software. What they’re doing with Android isn’t to snatch the phone market away from Apple or Nokia or the rest: the whole idea behind Android is to control the advertising on the mobile web. And if Google is willing to put so much into a mobile web initiative, then you can bet that they’re expecting big things to happen in that sphere.

What Does This Mean For Us?

Quite a few things, really. An explosion of the mobile web presents an unprecedented opportunity for web fiction. Mobile phones aren’t very powerful devices, and a limited battery life means they won’t be on game/music mode for very long. What they can do, and do well, is present text – they’re made for SMS, aren’t they? And with the advent of mobile Safari and Opera, these phones are now better equipped to surf the web – with limits, of course. No youtube and live media streaming, and that plays right into the hands of the text smiths.

How this comes about and how mobile phone novels can be distributed are a mystery to me. And there’s the same old problems with digital fiction: what formats do we use, and what operating system would it run on? But I’m fairly certain the answers won’t be very far away. Look sharp and keep an ear out. Things might get interesting.

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Category: Publishing
  • http://www.adammaxwell.com Adam Maxwell’s Short Stories

    A while ago I did do a complete rebuild of my site (which has short stories on rather than novels but hopefully there will be some relevanve in here) so that all the extraneous stuff that you wouldn’t want if you were mobile was gone and you could just access the stories in a few different ways. I am pretty convinced that this would ring true for novels too – if you were on the bus you would want to get straight to the next chapter whereas if you were at your desk you might want author info, podcasts and all the additional content a full website should have.

    Whilst I thought this would be a great idea the hits haven’t exactly measured up to the non mobile version. I think this is a great article on the subject and will be really interested to know what everyone thinks of the subject and indeed my foray into it if you can be bothered!


    and http://www.adammaxwell.com

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’m afraid that I don’t have a smartphone with me at the moment, but here’s a shoutout to Novelr’s audience: what do you think of Adam’s mobile site? Would you implement one for your own?

    @Adam: does the site redirect to the mobile version if it detects you’re on a phone platform? Or do you still have to manually visit it?

  • http://courage-my-friend.org Chris Poirier

    Looks great on an iPod Touch. Makes me think I should consider doing one for my site. :-)

  • http://www.adammaxwell.com Adam Maxwell’s Short Stories

    At the moment you have to go directly but when I get a spare few hours I have found a nifty little php script to redirect.

    @Chris – thanks and you should do one for your own, we are always being told that the demand on the mobile web is growing by the day and yet the content does not seem to be out there to fill it… yet!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Incidentally … there are some interesting lessons over at the Flickr development blog about creating a mobile site. Worth a look.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com Jim Zoetewey

    As someone who uses WordPress for my own site, I recently discovered a plugin that automatically creates a version of the site for mobile phones. I haven’t installed it yet, but I probably should soon.

    That being said, I’ve noticed that people are already reading my site on their iphones (and the occasional treo) without it.

    That’s a good thing since I paid no attention to that issue when putting the website together.

  • http://www.adammaxwell.com Adam Maxwell’s Short Stories

    @Jim – yeah a blogger friend of mine installed that although I don’t know what the success/failure rate of it is I have heard it is pretty good.

    @Eli – I have installed the redirect script on my homepage now and it appears to automatically redirect you although so far it has only been tested on Nokia’s – let me know everyone!?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’ll be dropping by a friend’s place tomorrow, and she’s got a Nokia N-series phone with a web-browser. I’ll drop by and pass you some feedback if I remember to check it out over there.

  • http://childrenofthefirst.com Alex McG

    @ Jim Zoetewey : I use a wordpress plugin to manage a mobile version of my site as well, and it seems to work. It’s probably the same plugin you’re talking about; it’s called MobilePress and can be found here.

  • http:///www.wibblypress.net Stormy

    Wibbly’s actually got a .mobi theme and address, so that all the serials are viewable (no pics, news etc, just the story content). It’s basic at the moment, with a prettier version in the works.

    It looks great on smart phones, but it works fine on any WAP-enabled phone.