Zumobi’s (formerly Zenzui) much anticipated launch of their widget-based mobile content application was announced yesterday (beta version). The then Zenzui was spun off of from Microsoft in March of this year, and has been busy attracting third party content developers, such as Flickr and MTVN to provide content to its application ever since.
The application features a unique user interface, with content widgets are arranged in “tiles” so that users can “zoom” in and out of content areas by using the familiar “9 up” arrangement. Reviews of the application have been mixed, in that the interface has been viewed by many as slick, but ultimately overly complex. The company anticipates a hybrid pay-for-distribution (a la cable television) / ad supported business model, although I have my doubts that the application will reach the critical mass needed to attract major advertising dollars.
A few months ago I was asked to draft a POV on the business prospects on the application. Below are some excerpts from this report that (should be) OK to share publicly:
- While on its face the ZenZui application seems to offer an elegant mobile browsing-like experience, it is faces many severe challenges from both a product and business-model perspective that would seriously put into question the firm’s prospects for success (both in the short and long term).
- ZenZui’s decision to target “Heavy (mobile) Users” is likely born out of necessity, and one should not assume that the ZenZui product will follow the usual technology-adoption curves. Several key factors render ZenZui exclusively a “Heavy User”-only product in both the short and mid term. Optimistically, one would need to look out beyond 2010 before the product’s scale would appeal to even the least risk-averse national brands.
- As of today the application is only available on Windows Mobile devices (<2% of current handset market). Unspecified plans to expand to J2ME devices (roughly 60% of handset market) and BREW (roughly 25% of handset market) would do much to alleviate this, but lack of any (even approximated) release dates in either of theses two environments leads one to assume they are very far from even an alpha launch (update: the J2ME version has been slated for release in “2Q 2008.” Not exactly a hard release date).
- Also somewhat surprising was that fact that Palm was specifically identified as an unsupported format (with no development plans), despite the popularity of the platform among Zenzui’s identified “heavy (mobile)-using” consumer target.
- Without regard to specific memory requirements, the main challenge from a handset resource allocation perspective is that in order to function properly the ZenZui application would need to be “always on” (running in the background) on the end user’s device. It is well-known among mobile developers that multithreading on a mobile device is fraught with challenges, and that other than the most expensive Windows Mobile, Apple and Blackberry handsets, other (more common) handsets would likely suffer severe performance issues if the ZenZui application were “always on.” In the short term this issue would seem to reinforce ZenZui’s decision to target “heavy (mobile) users,” as they would likely be the only ones with handsets that could support the application, regardless of development environment (Windows mobile, J2ME or BREW). This limitation could be overcome over the long term once handsets “caught up” to this requirement (an unlikely scenario in the next few years due to the 18-24 month handset replacement cycle).
- ZenZui’s non-standard coding environment assumes that developers will be willing to learn a new programming language in both a new / untested medium (mobile) and an application space that has yet to reach any legitimate level of consumer acceptance (ZenZui). As it is, brands and digital publishers are just beginning to embrace the need for “mobile-dedicated” sites in general, and when they do so are overwhelmingly choosing to code in resource-saving standard XML, or parse their standard web pages through a web-to-mobile “auto rendering engines,” which essentially remove page images and parse the (online) page into a standard mobile style sheets on the fly.
- Numerous high-profile research studies relating to consumer adoption of mobile data products and services identify price sensitivity as the top barrier to adoption. Other than the severe handset requirements detailed above, Zenzui’s other major price-related barrier to consumer adoption is the requirement that, due to the Zenzui application’s need to refresh its (local) content over-the-air via the carrier data networks, the user must subscribe to an unlimited (“all you can eat”) mobile data plan. As of 3Q 2007 the majority of wireless subscribers have balked at unlimited data plans, which (notable AT&T iPhone bundled voice/data rate aside) can cost consumers a hefty $15 to $30 per month.
- By pursuing a pay-for-distribution / advertising revenue-share hybrid business model, ZenZui seems to be following a model highly similar to that employed by the Cable Television Industry (Cable System Operator model). While clearly brands are comfortable “paying for placement” (even in the advertainment space), most digital content providers are not. High profile digital publishers will likely balk at paying a CPM and/or CPC on use of their content (on the contrary, many content brands would insist on payment for allowing Zenzui to gain distribution on the back of their content and brand equity). In the short term ZenZui has circumvented this issue by giving their product away to their content providers, but over the long term this will likely become a barrier for many premium content brands.
You can watch the Zumobi youtube promo video here: