During the last decade a cold war was waged between small businesses as they struggled to take full advantage of the online space. The key advantage of e-commerce - that it can quickly introduce your services to a global audience - also presented small businesses with the issue of massively increased competition. The web is, after all, an environment where consumers can compare prices, reviews and customer feedback at the click of a button.

Businesses in every sphere have battled to differentiate themselves online, engaging in a virtual arms race to take advantage of the latest technological developments and win a greater market share. Yet, this crowded online marketplace has left many small businesses searching for the next platform that can provide a competitive advantage for customer engagement.

Enter M-commerce
Mobiles have become a ubiquitous accessory with over 4 billion mobile handsets in use worldwide. Nokia, the world's largest handset manufacturer, sells 13 phones a second, while Chinese mobile operators see 5 million new subscribers each month. Mobile phones are also increasingly common in countries where access to laptops or PCs is extremely rare. Many African populations now regard their mobile phones as indispensable - indeed telecoms is often their only reliably functioning utility. Thus mobile handsets represent a means to not simply reach more consumers, but also to monetise markets previously inaccessible to e-commerce.

Unlike laptops and PCs, mobile phones normally tend to be within close proximity to their owner. This makes them a uniquely valuable platform for businesses. For example, businesses selling a product that is time specific, such as event tickets, can add value to their offerings by reminding customers of the booking. If a platform to purchase tickets is also available for mobile then businesses can fulfil their customers' needs instantly. Customer interactions via mobiles also have the potential to take advantage of in-built handset technologies, such as cameras, GPS navigation and accelerometers. If your business can take advantage of a handset's unique properties with new applications, your brand will remain in a customer's pocket 24/7.

If your business can take advantage of a handset's unique properties with new applications, your brand will remain in a customer's pocket 24/7

However, it will take consumers some time to accept the premise of paying for goods via their mobile phone, just as it took time for online payments to be adopted in the last decade. Many consumers are still unsure of the security of higher value mobile payments. While PCs and laptops are now protected by advanced firewalls and virus scanners, many consumers are unaware of the dangers to exactly the same data on their smartphones. There are also few comprehensive security programs available for the platform and, because we carry our smartphones with us at all times, these devices are more exposed to physical theft and misuse. Vendors will also have a need for greater security if higher value or physical products are offered to consumers.

Upward mobility
There are a number of routes through which businesses can take advantage of the growing mobile marketplace. The widespread uptake of smartphones has blurred the lines between online and mobile payments, with many handsets now capable of recreating a PC-quality internet browsing experience. With an estimated 10% of UK retail sales taking place online in 2010, the uptake of mobile transactions will only continue to increase as mobile technology is no longer a barrier to making mobile purchases and it will be increasingly easy to reach customers through mediums such as the mobile browser, Bluetooth, Wifi, Applications, 3G and high speed data networks. However, high-quality mobile browsing experiences are currently only possible on a small section of handsets, limiting the number of customers who can be reached effectively through this means.

As an alternative small businesses may wish to create their own mobile applications. The rise of mobile applications has already changed the way businesses interact with consumers and many app stores are now enormously popular. Apple's App Store has seen over 2bn downloads of 100,000 applications by 60m users, while more than 200m users worldwide can access Nokia's Ovi Store and Google's Android Marketplace. Mobile applications can offer consumers anything from an easier means to make purchases via their phone, to providing useful services or simple entertainment. The level of interactivity and response times from mobile apps is far greater than the mobile web and they are also capable of taking advantage of individual handset features, such as the iPhone's accelerometer.

The rise of mobile application stores and improving mobile internet capabilities are whetting the consumer appetite for m-commerce. Undoubtedly, now is the time for every entrepreneur to ask themselves how can their business take advantage of mobile.

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