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Source: ITbusiness.ca

Posted on October 6, 2008

      The "mobile gaming" and "social networking" worlds will intersect to such a degree that soon they will be indistinguishable, industry observers say.

      "Right now an arbitrary distinction is being made between the two," said Jay Goldman, vice-president, marketing at Zerofootprint Inc. Toronto-based Zerofootprint provides information, products and services for consumers and businesses that want to reduce their environmental impact.

      Goldman was a participant in a panel discussion titled Future Forward - The Digital Customer Experience in 2010, 2015 and beyond.

      He and other panellists were asked to react to a bunch of "forward looking" statements about where the world of consumer interaction online is going.

      One issue was mobile gaming would consume more time, attention and marketing budget than social networking by 2012.

      "I'd actually argue they (social networking and mobile gaming) are going to be the same thing," Goldman said. Games that include a social networking dimension tend to be the most successful, and game developers understand this, he said.

      "It's not a stretch to say that for most people Facebook is a casual gaming platform with a social networking aspect. And games such as PackRat are taking off on Facebook because of the social piece."

      In the near future, said Goldman, we'll see more such games becoming available for mobile systems, and people will start to use their mobile devices to play others they may not even know - and in a variety of environments.

      He cited the example of Virgin America's in-flight entertainment system, RED that allows passengers to challenge other folk on the plane to a casual video game. In much the same way, he predicted, in the not-so-distant future commuters on public transit systems would play video games with one another. "I could be in a streetcar and get a message on my iPhone tell me that another iPhone user would like to challenge me to a game. I'd be able to play the person even though I don't know who they are!"

      And such scenarios aren't the stuff of the future. They are quite common in countries such as Japan - and have been for some time, observed panel moderator Jennifer Evans, founder and chief strategist at Sequentia Environics, a marketing and customer communications firm in Toronto.

      Evans said she witnessed this phenomenon more than a decade ago in Tokyo, where she lived for a few years. "We would see people playing one another on the subway - and that was way back in 1997. So it's been happening there for years. It's just that the lag in [North America] to catch up has been quite significant."

      Analyst firms predict the mobile gaming market will continue to witness explosive growth. For instance, worldwide mobile gaming end-user revenue will more than triple to reach $9.6 billion in 2011, predicts Stamford Conn. based Gartner Inc. It stood at $2.9 billion in 2006.

      "Mobile gaming [will] reach more of the global population thanÉtraditional PC and console gaming," said Tuong Huy Nguyen, senior research analyst at Gartner.

      Likewise, analyst firms such as Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. are also forecasting massive growth for social networking in the business space.

      Forrester analyst G. Oliver Young predicts "Enterprise 2.0" applications - corporate versions of the Web 2.0 apps we're all so familiar with - will be a $4.6 billion industry by 2013. He said social networks will make up the bulk of that, with nearly $2 billion invested in them.

      Panellists at the TechWeek session expressed somewhat divergent opinions on whether mobile gaming would consume more marketing spend than social networking by 2012.

      Steve Mast believes it will. Mast is vice-president and marketing director at Delvinia Interactive Corp., a Toronto design and digital marketing firm. "We're witnessing a [mobile gaming] explosion in certain places in Europe and Asia, where mobile is part of the culture now," Mast noted.

      He acknowledged, however, that in North America the telecom network isn't on par with some other places in the world. So he said uptake and market spend on mobile gaming would depend to some extent on new initiatives by telecoms to improve the network.

      The challenge to widespread adoption of mobile gaming in North America isn't just a technical one, according to another panellist. "Even in terms of consumer behaviour, Canada isn't where Europe currently is in this space," said Parth Shukla, director, interactive and multi-channel marketing at Bell.ca For this reason, Shukla believes it's unlikely that within four years mobile gaming will consume a larger share of the marketing budget than social networking.

      Sulemaan Ahmed, director of digital marketing at Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. Based in Toronto, Harlequin is a publisher of romance and women's fiction. It is owned by Torstar Corp.

      "Unless bandwidth and other consideration are resolved by Telcos, I don't think you will see the mobile gaming market skyrocket before social networking," Ahmed said.

      Recent studies bear out Ahmed and Shukla's view.

      The delayed adoption of mobile gaming in North America, according to Gartner analysts, is due in part to the slower adoption of wireless technologies here.

      "At the end of 2006, data revenue accounted for less than 13 percent of total mobile telecom service revenue," a Gartner release notes. "[This is] one of the lowest proportions among developed nations."

      By contrast, observers say social networking sites are doing extremely well in Canada.

      "On a per capita basis Canada has more people on Facebook that the U.S. does," Harlequin's Ahmed noted. He said when Apple launched its Facebook page, of those who signed up worldwide, the second largest number was from Canada.

      "The U.S. was number one because of its sheer size, but Canada was number two - ahead of Australia and other countries with similar population sizes. So social networking here is undoubtedly going to advance."

      In the mobile gaming area, though, Ahmed said, Canada lags behind many other countries, and the equation isn't likely to change dramatically until network and other challenges are resolved. "So I don't think you'll see this (mobile gaming) market skyrocket before social networking."

      At the same time, he said, the experience of mobile gamers here has undoubtedly improved over the past couple of years - especially with the launch of the Apple iPhone and with Research in Motion (RIM) raising the bar on its BlackBerry products.

      A RIM executive shares this view and said data from his company's customer base shows the dominance of social networking activities over mobile networking.

      "Penetration of these (social networking) sites in our customer base is huge - in the order of millions of handsets, as opposed to the gaming stuff, which is in the hundreds of thousands," said Brendan Kenalty, who is responsible for customer loyalty and retention programs at Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM.

      He said RIM would shortly be launching Facebook and MySpace pages.

      Tracking ban?

      Canada recently implemented a "Do Not Call List" to protect people from unwanted telemarketing calls.

      Are we likely to see similar legislation to control tracking of consumers' online behaviour by marketers - and, if so, will that happen over the next two years?

      The near consensus among panellists was that such legislation would not be in place so soon.

      "It could happen, but I just don't know about 2010," said Ahmed. He said the government tends to move at its own pace, and a two-year time-frame is extremely aggressive. "Besides, I don't really know if it's as important an issue to John Q Public or Jane Doe."

      Some panellists noted that while mechanisms are needed to regulate online behaviour tracking, the initiative would likely come from the marketing industry itself. "Legislation isn't the answer," said Shukla. "I believe marketers will self regulate."

      Ahmed and Goldman noted that people already put up a lot of personal information on Facebook. "There are folk who have their cell phone number and home address on their Facebook profile, which is now publicly addressable by Google," Goldman noted. "So most people don't even realize tracking is happening."

      He said 2010 is probably "too early" for tracking-control legislation, unless there's a public outcry - and that probably won't happen.

      On the issue of privacy protection, Goldman also emphasized the difference between "anonymous" and "targeted" tracking. "If you're being tracked in the aggregate, it's harmless. But when you're tracked in a way identifies who you are, and where you've been to - that's a very different scenario."

      RIM's Kenalty also agreed that tracking legislation by 2010 is an unlikely scenario. "There's all sorts of searchable stuff online. People are tagging their photos - how do you have legislation around that?"

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