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.

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Publishing