How Soon Will We See Smartphones with 'Special Offers'?

The notion of ad-subsidized smartphones or mobile service has existed for years. Way back in 2006 then Google CEO Eric Schmidt argued that mobile phone service could be entirely subsidized by advertising. A couple years later in the UK Blyk brought the idea to life, providing free service to its youthful audience as an MVNO.

However the company changed its model and is no longer in the MVNO business. One could readily see the pivot as an admission of the limited opportunity associated with providing ad-supported cell service. However in an adjacent market (eReaders/tablets) Amazon has had great success with its ad-supported Kindles.

After the Kindle Fire, which is the top-selling device on Amazon, the bestselling electronics are all Kindles "with special offers" (ads).

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Ads on Kindles appear in the form of idle homescreen ads and banners. The idea of idle homescreen advertising on mobile phones has been around for a long time in the halls of mobile marketing. Mobile Posse has implemented it with some evidence of success. However the practice is far from mainstream. 

In a recent article in DM News Bizo CEO Russell Glass, seemingly unaware of prior history, says: "Look for the first completely ad-supported 
cell phone in the next 12 months and dozens to follow in the coming few years." Putting aside Blyk and Mobile Posse's mixed track records the Amazon example may be paving the way for such an opportunity. 

While it's very unlikely that we'll see "completely ad-supported" mobile phones any time soon, we may see Amazon-style ad-subsidized hardware or phone service. The latter is a much more likely scenario given how heavily subsidized the hardware already is. And this is where carriers might get involved in mobile advertising in a bigger way. (I still think that a parallel opportunity exists in the model of the Placecast-AT&T or O2 relationships.)

One can imagine that many people would jump at reduced monthly charges in exchange for ads on their idle/home screens, as Amazon seems to have shown with hardware discounts. And carriers could potentially develop fairly large ad networks in short order. Execution is a major problem for carriers but the concept has now become more interesting and viable.