Mobile Phones: Computers or Something Else? It’s the Social Software and Content that Matters.

In the summer I wrote a quick entry entitled, The Mobile Phone: “Social Computer”, in which I said,

“Until now my mobile telephone has been a two-way radio capable of playing a few mildly-amusing games and taking a few crude pictures. It is now becoming a portable input & connecting device initiating meaningful connections with people I know and people I don’t yet know.”

Om Malik and others strongly disagreed with the assessment of the mobile phone as a social computer,

“Mobile phones have a different behavioral relationship with their users… But mostly – phones are not computers – they are terminals on the edge of the network, they lack the complexity of a PC, and are managed. They are devices that help people communicate, not compute. They let you consume bits some of the time, not all the time.”

Since I wrote that piece, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about social mobile content and software, and have come to realize that looking at the mobile phone “through the eyes of a PC” was and is limiting.

The intention of my original post was not necessarily to strictly liken mobile phones to computers, but rather to point out their transformation from a mere telephone to a more sophisticated and rich device. I see the argument between “computer” and “not a computer” as a semantic question which I will leave to others. (Perhaps I mistakenly interjected myself into that debate.)

My evolved perspective is now that mobile phones are increasingly resembling computing devices (richer OS’s, flash memory cards, more sophisticated applications), but they are also fundamentally different and should be treated as such. This changed viewpoint rests on the recognition of the mobile device as a uniquely personal one – not for computing per se, but rather used first for connectivity and increasingly for social networking and a specific set of information retrieval.

Of course the obvious differences between a PC and a mobile phone are the input ability/interface and display screen limitations. Those have been highlighted numerous times by many others. However, I view the essential dissimilarities between a mobile phone and a PC as the same reasons why I believe there are tremendous opportunities to come on the mobile platform. The four defining characteristics of a mobile device being location-aware, portable, immediate, and understanding give socially-enabled mobile content and software the ability to transcend the functionality of a PC.

The device in your pocket is always with you. Soon it will know where you are, who you’ve communicated with, and if you are currently available. If you need any specific incremental information, you can get it immediately. Immediately. And more importantly, as Jon Turow and I recently discussed, this device will increasingly an understanding of what you are doing. Are you eating at a restaurant? Are you taking pictures? Are you by yourself or with other people with their devices? A mobile device will “know” more about you than a PC ever could, and that information can enable valuable services that are far beyond anything that we’ve seen on a PC.

Consequently, the way that users interact and connect with the “content” that is available on mobile phones is fundamentally different from that of a PC. That is not to say that we cannot derive lessons and learnings from the history of the PC and web platforms which can be applied to the mobile device. But it does translate into the notion that a web or PC experience cannot be directly transferred to onto the mobile. Just as offline producers couldn’t just easily repurpose their content onto the web, web content and software producers won’t and shouldn’t be able to do the same on mobile.

So Om was right – I was mistaken about thinking of the mobile phone in the same manner as PC. But I still agree with Trip Hawkin’s assessment that the highest value media types on mobile phones are going to be ones that “provide access to a social network,” which was the true intention of my post. And whether or not you call that device a computer is secondary. To me, phones trending towards social mobile devices signal the unique convergence of connectivity and content into one platform. This union creates an opportunity for exciting new services (many potentially made by start-ups).

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.