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A requiem for the mobile web

Farewell then, Mowser

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VCs have spunked $1.5bn on useless Web 2.0 companies in recent years. And millions more in capital will be wasted in deals at Tim 2.0'Reilly's webfest over the next few days. So why can't one of the most promising start-ups, that potentially brings the web to over a billion new surfers, get funding?

Mowser is an ad-supported web proxy for mobile devices. It reformats complex web pages so they read nicely on an ordinary phone browser, and it works so well you may find yourself using it on a desktop browser. But founder Russell Beattie is closing the service he launched a year ago, which has failed to find VC backing.

Last week, a despondent Beattie broke the news and gave an honest assessment of the "market". It's a must-read if you've followed the mobile business.

Beattie says most of the hype about mobile browsing has been misplaced, for several reasons. Firstly, futurists and other pundits forget that what succeeds in Asia doesn't necessarily work in the West:

"I don't actually believe in the 'mobile web' anymore," he wrote. "And therefore am less inclined to spend time and effort in a market I think is limited at best, and dying at worst. I'm talking specifically about sites that are geared 100 per cent towards mobile phones and have little to no PC web presence.

"Two years ago I was convinced that the mobile web would continue to evolve in the West to mimic what was happening in countries like Japan and Korea, but it hasn't happened, and now I'm sure it isn't going to."

Beattie continues:

"The traffic never showed up, and what did show up was of questionable quality at best... It's not there now, and it won't be.

"It would be easy to say that the iPhone 'disrupted' the mobile web market, but in fact I think all it did is point out that there never was one to begin with."

Russell's in good company when it comes to overestimating the appeal of the mobile web: phone services continue to confound some of the industry's best brains. And er, ... your reporter, too. Even after the WAP saga, I was still confident that mobile sites would one day be slick, functional, and popular on mobile phones - a spectacular misjudgement.

My theory?

Well, here's a clue: "data", like "information" is a meaningless word. No one predicted that kids who never pay for music (then or now) would pay $5 for a few seconds' worth of a ringtone. The ringtones, it turned out, were competing with sneakers and jeans - they were items of clothing.

Today's mobile hypesters who confidently predict the web going mobile, forgot that the web competes with local knowledge. It's almost always quicker (and more fun) to be prepared in advance, or ask someone, once mobile. You can ask someone next to you, or you can call a friend: either is quicker than tapping away on a phone. Mobile surfing was crap when it was WAP, crap now it's an XHTML browser, and will be crap when it's an AJAX Widget.

It's all just technology looking for a problem to solve, and the "problem" really isn't there at all.

So is there a future for Mowser?

The Mowser technology is excellent, but with no end-user audience it's hard to sustain any sort of business as an intermediary technology company. But then, who has ever made money from trying to support middleware by advertising? Mowser may yet offer web publishers a quick-and-dirty way of making their sites "go mobile" - so hopefully Beattie can salvage something from the venture by adopting a licensing model.

Then again, you don't build an audience by neglecting the hype machine. We posted a rave to Beattie after we discovered Mowser a few months back, requesting an email interview. We never heard back. ®

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