Architecture and Hardware Mobile commerce opportunities and challenges

Mobile Commerce at Crossroads

Lessons learned from an international study of users of mobile handheld devices and services.
  1. Introduction
  2. Disorders of Freedom and Connectedness
  3. Conclusion
  4. References
  5. Authors
  6. Footnotes
  7. Figures
  8. Tables

The advent of m-commerce has fueled much anticipation of its future possibilities [1, 4]. However, predictions that Internet technologies and wireless communication would greatly benefit both firms and individuals have now come under increasing scrutiny. Uncertain technology standards, the complexities of interactive multimedia applications, and the threat of governmental regulation have all contributed to a deflated vision of mobile commerce. But what value do mobile handheld devices and services really offer their users? Has the promise of m-commerce been left unfulfilled?

To answer these questions, we conducted a cross-cultural research study involving 32 focus groups with nearly 200 active urban mobile device users in Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, and the U.S. in 2001. Varied in culture, age, gender, professional orientation, and economic standing, the focus groups ranged from children to adults, from aircraft maintenance staff to entrepreneurs. Across the four countries, focus groups had some overlapping characteristics (professionals, young adults, teens), although the profile of the specific groups varied by country to capture leading users in both professional and personal spheres. This research followed the commonly accepted guidelines of focus group research [2]. In a given group, members were “peers” and all conversations were conducted in local languages.

Members of the groups used a number of services ranging from standard voice communication to genuine m-commerce services (see the figure here), and they provided a range of responses to questions about why they use mobile devices and services and how their use affects their private and work lives.

Mobility Grants Freedom of Choice. While focus group participants consistently talked about some newly found freedoms and choices [5], participants from Western countries placed more significance on freedoms related to effectiveness at work and those in the individual sphere. Asian participants, on the other hand, especially valued new freedoms in interpersonal relationships and emotional expression. Other typical comments concerning freedom of choice are shown in Table 1.

Freedom is Not Enough. The prevalent opinion across all groups was that aside from communication services, m-commerce is not offering any new significant consumer freedoms for which they would be willing to pay substantial fees. Many had experience with accessing content, playing games, and downloading ring tones, icons, or music, but only a few were using such services regularly. Only when mobility really made a difference did some participants indicate demand for genuine m-commerce services. Table 2 (top half) presents several typical example quotes illustrating the demand issues in m-commerce. The technical limitations of mobile devices contributed to the relatively low appreciation of m-commerce services as well. More significant, however, was the predominant perception that quality of service is low and m-commerce is difficult to use—the bottom portion of Table 2 illustrates limitations.

Getting By With a Little Help From Our Friends Although the modern world idealizes freedom, we are more dependent than ever on our connections to manage everyday life [10]. Many of our focus group users said turning off their devices made them feel disconnected. Users employed different services and social protocols for specific situations. They interacted more frequently and casually with friends, family, and coworkers (in-group) than with clients or other acquaintances (out-group). Generally speaking, text messaging was much more commonly used with the in-group whereas phone calls were the more common method of communication with members of the out-group. Cultural differences were notable here as well.

Several group members emphasized that mobile communication helped them to do their work better. But more important, perhaps, was the impact of mobile communication on personal and family relationships. A few participants also viewed their mobile devices as essential elements of their intimate, personal space, having integrated them as part of their own identity [9]. Table 3 (top half) provides sample quotes elaborating on social connectedness. However, the technical ability to connect does not necessarily mean that connectedness was really achieved [7]. Mobile devices lower the threshold for making connections: if someone sends 20 to 30 text messages in an hour all while working on some other task, how meaningful is the connection?

The industry must move beyond “nice-to-have” services that don’t really push the limits of current possibilities and devise new “must-have” services that positively affect people’s lives.

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Disorders of Freedom and Connectedness

Mobile services can increase connectedness, but excessive mobile use encourages superficiality, indifferent behavior toward one’s surroundings, the privatization of life-style, and increased opportunity for control of others’ lives. Similarly, independence can lead to abuses of freedom, compulsive and self-destructive behavior, isolation, and depression.

How great the tension of connexity—conflict between connectedness and freedom (see [6])—depends on a user’s social, cultural, and historical context. Some cultures naturally emphasize freedom; others emphasize social connectedness [3]. This was true both in Finland and U.S., where the respective cultures focus on individualistic needs, values, and goals over those of the group. In collectivistic cultures, such as Japan and Hong Kong, the needs, values, and goals of the group take precedence over those of the individual. Because of the emphasis on the in-group/out-group boundary and the informal nature of mobile communications and messages, members of collectivist cultures may be less likely to interact via their mobile devices with those who are not part of their in-group. For example, in Japan mobile phones had not yet become part of many serious professional communications.

Another flaw of mobile connectivity that adds to connexity is interaction asymmetry: the initiator who seeks rapid feedback benefits, but pressures or interrupts the recipient who is forced to respond. Although freedom suggests we can decide when and to what degree we want to participate in network exchanges, social norms and expectations are increasingly in conflict with independence.

Several respondents complained about intrusion of privacy. Almost everyone cited some unpleasant disruption or disturbance that was created by mobile technology uses. The limitations of physical and conversational space were real to our users [8]. Table 3 (bottom half) displays some sample quotes on tensions, or connexity.

Although users overwhelmingly gave credit to the new technology for the possibilities it has created, they also recognized it has side effects detrimental to the overall value. Indeed, some felt the technology is actually beginning to dominate the user.

Hence, one challenge that device manufacturers, service providers, and users alike face is how to better align mobile technologies with human modes of behavior and social conventions. A solution must include better presence management, that is, options allowing users to decide more freely when, with whom, and to what degree they will interact with others.

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E-commerce brought the powers of a networked economy to the consumer and made the desktop computer the means of access to the Web. With the addition of mobility, m-commerce lets the Web come to the user, at any time, at any location. Yet, consumers may lack a compelling motivation to adopt new for-pay service offerings unless they create new choices where mobility really matters.

Mobile communications and information services that enable continuous connectedness have increased users’ freedoms psychologically, socially, and physically. The side effect of the increased freedoms is that users of such technologies are now experiencing disorders of freedom that significantly deflect from their value. To narrow the gap, m-commerce solution providers must proactively address connexity issues affecting users.

The industry must move beyond “nice-to-have” services that don’t really push the limits of current possibilities and devise new “must-have” services that positively affect people’s lives. The likelihood of positive impact increases when the technology provides not only greater freedoms and connectedness, but also manages the tension between the two. Nonetheless, the success of m-commerce services is likely to depend on how flexible and malleable the technology is to allow users to shape it to their individual and group needs in various social and business contexts. It will be the innovativeness of users and uses, not the innovativeness of the technology, that will drive m-commerce growth to a new level.

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UF1 Figure. Percentages of focus group members regularly using some selected services, and perceived importance (PI) and value of service by those who have used it (10 = very valuable, 1 = useless).

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T1 Table 1. Typical focus group responses elaborating on issues related to freedom of choice.

T2 Table 2. Typical focus group responses elaborating on value and limitations of m-commerce services.

T3 Table 3. Sample of typical focus group responses elaborating on issues related to social connectedness (top) and connexity (bottom).

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    1. Balasubramanian, S., Peterson, R.A. and Jarvenpaa, S.L. Exploring the implications of m-commerce for markets and marketing. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 30, 4 (2002), 348–361.

    2. Fern, E.F. Advanced Focus Group Research. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2001.

    3. Hofstede, G. Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Sage, Newbury Park, CA, 1980.

    4. Kalakota, R. and Robinson, M. M-Business: The Race to Mobility. McGraw-Hill, 2001.

    5. Macintosh, R., Keen, P.G.W. and Heikkonen, M. The Freedom Economy: Gaining the mCommerce Edge in the Era of the Wireless Internet. McGraw-Hill Osborne Media, 2001.

    6. Mulgan, G. Connexity: How to Live in a Connected World. Harvard Business School Press, 1998.

    7. Myerson, G. Heidegger, Habermas and the Mobile Phone. Icon Books, London, 2001.

    8. Palen, L., Salsman, M., and Youngs, E. Going wireless: Behavior and practice of new mobile phone users. In Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. Philadelphia, PA, 2000.

    9. Schlosser, F.K. So, how do people really use their handheld devices? An interactive study of wireless technology use. Journal of Organizational Behavior 23, 4 (2002), 401–423.

    10. Wellman, B., et al. Computer networks as social networks: Collaborative work, telework, and virtual community. Annual Review of Sociology 22, 1996, 213–238.

    The project was funded by a grant awarded to the first author by the Advanced Practices Council of Society for Information Management.

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