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The Business Case for Mobile Learning and Books?

Camel Mobile Phone Desert Africa   

Image by forcevive via Flickr


‘Mobile mania’ is abundant. Everyone is excited about it in the publishing world. Books on mobile phones, learning on mobiles (aka ‘m-learning’), broadband on mobiles. You name it, everyone wants everything on their mobile and wants their mobile to do everything, according to the mobile handset manufacturers and network providers.

Of course, network operators want to grow their revenues from data charges because their revenue from voice is being eaten away by competition and regulations. Cynical? Me?

Some interesting meetings recently with publishers have also revealed much the same excitement from them about mobile learning and books on mobiles. I have previously written about eBooks on mobiles and my views on that are clear. Learning through a mobile phone is another topic of interest to debate.

The number of people who own a mobile in Africa and Asia is generally greater than the number who own a laptop or PC. That’s not a surprise and mobile networks are enabling commerce in developing countries in ways which have not been possible before their arrival. For example, a fisherman off the west coast of Africa can call several ports to check where there is a lack of fish so that he can get the best price for his catch.

In India, where I spent six weeks with 3 Mobile in October 2008, 3G networks will soon arrive enabling greater potential for commerce and information transfer to more people. In the ‘West’, eBooks is the fastest growing category on the iTunes App Store. Publishers are getting excited, understandably. 

I believe that these numbers hide some truths, however. In the training business where I have spent the last 12 years of my career selling and marketing elearning, books, classroom training and distance learning, one of the most tricky items to sell and to show value for the benefit is elearning. Publishers sew seeds by giving away some elearning courses for free to gain interest, usage and to help install any plug-ins needed to run the elearning on PC’s and laptops. The publishers then get excited about how many people have downloaded the free elearning and cite it as evidence that people want to the stuff.

Of course, the question they rarely answer is how many people who downloaded the free course actually completed it? There was never an answer.  So, the implication is that people get the free course, look at it for a bit and then lose enthusiasm for completing the course. People are buying eBooks for their iPhones, for sure. They seem to be willing to pay more than for games and they are very keen to pay less than US$1 for them. But, what type of books are they buying in which subjects? 

Also, there is the challenge of infrastructure to support mobile learning. As web developers, we test sites we build for customers on several different operating systems and browsers. In the mobile world, there are something in the region of half a million combinations of operating systems and mobile web browsers. There are specialist content management systems (CMS) which are designed to handle this challenge, but you then have to start running two CMS’s to reach your mobile and PC customers.

Furthermore, what are the data charges that customers in Africa who want learning materials are willing to pay? Also, many customers in Africa and Asia are likely to be on pre-pay plans which means their connection with the network is likely to be intermittent. 

I think publishers need to slow down before they start committing to mobile learning and concentrate their resources carefully on providing more robust learning options for their customers such as rich Internet applications first. Mobile learning will become more achievable as a business proposition, but I believe it is just a nice way to deliver small bites of learning, news and information to encourage customers to take advantage of resources which are near to them. 









  1. stevehoward999
    05/03/2009 at 8:57 pm

    This diversity of platform is why Adobe is concentrating onthe Open Screen Project to get a ‘unified’ Flash player across the desktop and mobile worlds. Kinda like Java only more betterer 😉


    • arryawke
      05/03/2009 at 10:07 pm

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your comment. Getting a ‘unified’ Flash player will make a massive difference to how easy it is to publish content on different platforms. Then the content will look better and it will be richer. Looking forward to seeing this in the flesh and I will make our developers aware of your project!



  2. stevehoward999
    06/03/2009 at 3:57 pm

    Great – but it’s Adobe’s project, not mine 🙂

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