Crosswords Are the Prototypical Mobile Killer App

I discussed this with Jim the other day a bit and he seemed to think it made sense, so I'll throw it out here as well. I thought of this over a year ago and did nothing about it. I'm now re-analyzing the idea with a more critical eye, and it still appeals to me on many levels that I'm going to explain in detail.

This may be one of those long posts that no one pays attention to, so what I'll do is bullet point my ideas here:

  • Look around you: What are people doing when they're waiting?
  • Like Fish: Fresh, Local and Topical content is key.
  • Wired Up: Being connected is what is new.
  • Greatly Exaggerated: Internet Advertising is not dead.
  • Lock 'em out: Exclusive content is the only way to protect yourself from competitors and create significant barriers to entry.

So before I get started on a long and winded rant, let me just say that I don't like crosswords. I really usually never seem to get the clues, get quite bored and think of many other things I could be doing with my time instead of messing around with a stupid puzzle. I'm not alone - do you know anyone under 30 that really likes crosswords? Not many. Do you know many people over 30 with mobile phones? Not many. Oh-oh. You can see how there's some problems already with my thinking... however...

That said, crosswords are a perfect example of the holy grail of mobile applications. Bear with me now because I don't think crosswords themselves are it, I just think that something LIKE crosswords is it and since I can't imagine what that thing will be, I can only explain what I'm thinking by using crosswords as the example. Let me begin:

Look around you: What are people doing when they're waiting?

If you haven't commuted in a big city lately, you probably have no idea what millions of people do every day to occupy themselves while moving their bodies from one point to another point along with a zillion other people. For the most part they read, they stare off into space, and they do puzzles in the paper. Specifically the daily crossword puzzles. I don't know how many abandoned newspapers I've run across in buses where the paper seemed unread, but the puzzle finished. It keeps people occupied.

Here in Madrid about a year ago, two free daily newspapers popped up and started giving away papers at the entrances to the Metro. Having worked for a free daily, I can tell you what's inside. A few local stories, tons of news off the wires (AP/Reuters), lots of ads, classifieds and of course, the crossword. In Spain they have a slightly different form of crossword, but it's basically the same idea (though theirs usually has a picture and some arrows). Anyways, every day a ton of these papers go into the buses and into the metro and lots of people open up the paper, take out their pen and work on the crossword while winding their way to work.

In New York, I know because of an ex-girlfriend from many years ago who used to live in Queens, her favorite weekly routine was buying the Sunday paper and doing the gigantic NYT crossword. She would do it at home, or at the park or wherever. If she didn't get it done on Sunday, she'd bring it with her during the rest of the week and work on it during commutes. It was portable, absorbing and entertaining (to her).

What more could you ask for from a mobile application that you're trying to sell?

Like Fish: Fresh, Local and Topical content is key

If you go to the New York Times website, you can find a page where they have crosswords available for free. There's a "standard" client and file format called a .puz that you can play online or download and play offline. It's been there for years. However, if you want to have access to TODAY'S puzzle you have to pay. $19 a year. This is pretty much the same system that the London Times has also.

Now there are mobile crosswords already. If you go to Handango and look up crossword, you'll find one for just about every platform. But all have pre-packaged crosswords. None allow you to connect to the internet and get some newspaper's daily crossword. They're all just generic games that yes, are crossword puzzles, but only in action not in spirit.

Crossword puzzles aren't fun if they're out of some generic book. People who are doing crosswords want to do TODAY's crossword. They want to have that sensation that the content is fresh and that the clues are interesting and topical. Many times clues can be from some random history event or from TV show or political figure. Generic crosswords don't have that. And if you're in New York, you don't want to do the L.A. Times puzzle, you want YOUR puzzle from your town.

Additionally, people want to feel that they are doing the same crossword as millions of others. It's like a competition. "I'm going to finish this crossword before that guy across the aisle." It's more fun that way. If it's just a generic puzzle out of a 1000 puzzle book, it doesn't matter if you finish a puzzle or not - you can just look in the back of the book anyways for the answer. But TODAY'S puzzle? Well you're not going to get the answers until tomorrow and it'll drive you NUTS if you don't get it done.

It's all about having fresh content - but not news - fresh games. This is why the NYT and London Times can both charge MONEY for access to today's crosswords, where the REST of their news is free. People want to feel like they're getting the latest puzzle there is. This is cool and unique and translates quite well.

Wired Up: Being connected is what is new.

So this is where I start talking about mobile phones. Crosswords have all these unique qualities about them that make it perfect for a consumer game. So let's create a crossword app - it's not that hard, it's one of the first Applets many people learn how to make in Java for example - but now let's wire it up to the net.

Now you can get your daily crosswords or select from a zillion others. You can download the puzzle, start playing, get hints, post results, save your game for later, go down into the metro (offline) and continue working on it and more. Unlike the generic PDA versions, you don't need to do anything special. While you're walking to the metro, you pull out your phone, press a button on the main screen of the crossword app and down comes the latest NYT puzzle - as well as the answers to yesterday's crossword while you're at it.

Instead of generic, you now have connected. And if you do it right, just like Vodafone, you can wrap it up into a seamless, user-friendly app that even your mother can use and will prefer over broken pencil tips and smudged eraser marks that she'd normally have to deal with using paper.

Greatly Exaggerated: Internet Advertising is not dead.

So all this is wonderful, but really, how many people are going to PAY to get this content? Well, in my opinion, nobody. And that's where the advertisers come in.

It's very simple - why would anyone pay for a crossword puzzle if they can get one free - along with all the day's news - handed to them at the mouth of the metro as they're walking to work anyways? Because it's whiz-bang and neato? Nope, that's not going to work, because as we learned earlier today, mobile phone users aren't geeks. They're penny-pinching (er concious) young people who aren't going to go out of their way to pay for something they can get for free.

So we'll have to have advertising support all this. "But WAIT!" you say, "Internet advertising is dead." But my response is that no, in fact, it isn't. Yahoo is still making cash, as is Google and AOL (yes, I know, but there's still money coming in) from advertising. What's dead is banner ads. If you think outside that small mindset, you'll see that there's tons of opportunity for mobile advertising: Full color screens, COMPLETE control over the screen for a time period (there's little multi-tasking on mobile phones), multimedia, ability to communicate in various ways to the consumer, etc. Advertising on the mobile phone is just in its infancy... there's whole worlds that hasn't been explored yet.

With each puzzle to be downloaded to the crossword player, a sponsor pays to be inserted along with the puzzle on the consumer's phone. Every time they bring up the game, a splash screen with the sponsor comes up first. Not annoying (you want them to keep using the app, right?) but insistant. No one knows how much advertisers are willing to pay for something like that, but full control over my phone for a few seconds while I'm sitting somewhere waiting and have nothing better to do? That's pretty impressive.

Additionally, because mobile advertising is just starting, there hasn't been any limits pushed yet. Think about this: the advertisement could prompt the user if he wants to call a special toll-free number and talk to an operator about their product. Or prompt the user to send an SMS message with their full contact details... Or an email... Or request that on the next request for a puzzle, that the server is allowed to download a business card with all the relevant contact info for the advertiser. There's just been no boundaries tested yet.

Here's a story I told Jim the other day on IM. I did a project for the internet advertising piece of Softbank back when they were handling Yahoo's banner ads. That's when I learned about AutoByTel. When Yahoo was first starting to offer keyword sales, AutoByTel - who had been around for a while and had some cash - made a deal to buy huge chunks of their inventory for anything to do with cars. Yahoo was more than happy to have real revenues in the bank, and AutoByTel made a killing because they were the first to understand the medium and thus had a virtual car-search monopoly on Yahoo for years because of it.

Similar success or more is what's going to happen to the first advertisers who grok how mobile advertising can be tapped.

Lock 'em out: Exclusive content is the only way to protect yourself from competitors and create significant barriers to entry.

Finally, the last part of my rant is about the content. This is where the business comes in. Everything I've said is all well and good, but if you don't have the puzzles, then there's nothing to play. Or if you don't have exclusive rights over the content, then anybody can come along and create a crossword puzzle in minutes, throw up a server and your plan goes out the window. Crossword puzzles are to games what music files are to entertainment. You need to get the exclusive rights and then you're able to provide a service.

This, in my mind, is the whole key for all mobile businesses going forward. Offering access to something that no one else can touch. It's going to be SO easy for companies like Yahoo to flip a switch and take out any server-side focused companies because of their size and expertise. If you have some "moblogging" server, for example, what happens when AOL decidedes not only to create weblogs, but to mobile-phone enable all of them? Well, you're done. Additionally, I'm already watching mobile-app based pirates take out the client-side apps by going in and hacking their code at the byte level to bypass keycodes and other security measures. Why pay for an app when your buddy can Bluetooth it to you for free?

In my opinion, it's only the combination of client and server as well as exclusive data that's going to provide that edge. Otherwise there's nothing to stop anyone from copying the puzzles, or providing other generic puzzles that are just as good as yours, etc.

In Summary

Again, I don't like Crosswords.

However, all the pieces of a crossword app would fit what, in my opinion, the mobile business world is looking for. You have content that's not generic, yet not passive like ringtones and music. It's a game, but it's customizable based on a small text file. You can add advertising and be guaranteed multimedia and connectivity. And it's all an extension of something people will be doing anyways, so you're not fighting an uphill battle of education, marketing and adoption.

That's it. I hope it's clear... it's been a long week and it's very late. ;-)


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