Media companies and mobile: Asia envy

November 23, 2009: 6:00 AM ET

Add media and marketing executives to the long list of constituents who wish North American mobile systems were more like those in Asia.

Though the entertainment and advertising rarely are on the cutting edge when it comes to embracing new technologies, a group of muckety mucks at the Paley Center for Media International Council meeting in New York last week made it clear that the future of  media consumption is the mobile devices - at least the mobile device as used by consumers in countries such as Japan, Korea and even China.

"If you look at what's happening in Japan and Korea the potential for mobile is huge," says Nick Brien, president and CEO of Mediabrands, a media holding company and unit of Interpublic Group (IPG).'

"The future is here," Brien adds. "And it is there."

For a panel discussion on "Monetizing the Mobile Landscape," Brien described mobile marketing initiatives launched by his company and its divisions that showed how marketers and entertainers alike could effectively using wireless handsets to build brands with consumers. He cited an example of a McDonald's (MCD)-sponsored concert in Japan accessible only on wireless devices.

Reality, only better?

On the same panel, Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of the Americas and India for Qualcomm (QCOM), noted that Japan also benefits from consumers' ability to use their cellphone as a wallet. NTT DoCoMo (DCM) since 2004 has offered a service called FeLiCa, that allows subscribers to pay for goods (or ride trains and enter office buildings) with a swipe of their phones.

Brien, Johnson and others in attendance at the council event felt that the combination of robust wireless networks, mobile payments systems and a simplified platform that gave media companies access to subscribers could quickly transform the way companies build relationships with customers.

Qualcomm's Johnson talked about something her company is calling "augmented reality."  Fix your mobile phone on a building, say, and, using mapping technology, the phone might be able to identify all the retailers in the building, and provide you with user-generated reviews of the restaurant - or just the reviews and rankings of people in your circle of friends. As you're clicking through the reviews, the restaurant could send you coupon or other enticement to lure you into the eatery.

Of course, notes panelist Susan Whiting, vice chairman of the Nielsen Company, consumers will have to opt into this kind of service or marketers and mobile companies would quickly find themselves running into privacy issues - though she notes that younger consumers have a much different attitude about online privacy than older tech users.

Yet for all the talk about the great wireless applications in Japan, Korea and other Asian nations, a great deal of the action around smartphones and other new devices has shifted to the United States thanks to Apple's (AAPL)  iPhone and now Google's (GOOG) Android operating platform. In the second quarter, Nielsen says, one in four phones sold in the U.S. were smartphones.

The couch potato's killer app: Mobile TV

Smartphone users are frequently online. Nielsen research from the third quarter of this year suggests that owners of Android phones, for example, will be more likely to use more of the data features on the device more often than if using other smartphones, suggesting that its users truly will use Andoid phones as pocket computers - not voice calling devices.

And video consumption on the small screen is getting to be a big deal: In the second quarter, Nielsen says, there were 15.3 million active mobile video viewers, or 7% of all U.S. mobile subscribers.

A few years ago pundits thought consumers would only watch tidbits (remember "Mobisodes") on their mobile phones. Now people watch entire programs, even films, on their iPhones. Indeed, there's anecdotal evidence that some people watch television or video programming on their mobile devices even when a large-screen television or computer screen is in the room. (Perhaps they are too lazy to look for the remote?)

The upshot: Asia may have a head start when it comes to mobile services, but never underestimate American couch potatoes' ability to consume media - especially television - on whatever platform comes along.

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About This Author
Stephanie Mehta
Stephanie Mehta
Deputy Managing Editor , Fortune

Stephanie N. Mehta is the deputy managing editor at Fortune, overseeing technology coverage for Fortune. She also is a co-chair of the annual Brainstorm Tech conference, an annual gathering of tech and media thinkers. Previously, Mehta spent seven years as a tech writer at Fortune covering the telecom and media industries. She also has worked for the Wall Street Journal and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.

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