A virtual world — on a cellphone

Although the Web and Web 2.0 gets a lot of attention — and rightly so, in my opinion — one of the other important trends has to do with mobility, and specifically cellphones and PDA-type devices. And while there is lots of evidence of that occurring in North America, it becomes abundantly obvious as soon as you look outside the continent, particularly to developing countries such as China and India. As Don Dodge says, it is the “first screen.”

In those countries, a mobile phone may be the closest that someone ever gets to a computer or the Internet, apart from using one at school, or in a library or town hall — a distinction that North American companies likely have a difficult time remembering. The New York Times has a fascinating story about a company called TenCent that is taking full advantage of the central place that mobiles appear to have in the lives of Chinese youth.

qq online.jpgFrom the sounds of it, TenCent started with a simple instant-messaging tool for phones called QQ, and has evolved into a full-fledged micro-entertainment service with games, social apps, avatars and so on. If you want a picture of what it involves, think of something like HabboHotel.com (with tiny avatars and games) mixed with MySpace and MSN, all powered by a World of Warcraft-style virtual currency called Q coins. The Chinese government even warned recently that Q-coins were becoming a real-life currency, with people trading virtual game points for real-world services.

One QQ user in the NYT story — a 21-year-old university student — says that he is using some QQ service or other for three to five hours a day. That is mind-boggling. According to some estimates, QQ has more than 150 million users, 9 million of whom are online at any one time. And TenCent continues to roll out new features and services. I think Om Malik is right when he says that social networking is a feature that is showing up in many different places.

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