Mobile Madness Speakers Dissect 4G, Enterprise Apps, New Interfaces; Zizzout Destealths with Mobile “Visual Marketplace”

3/10/11Follow @wroush

If you can measure a conference’s success from the volume level during the closing cocktail hour, then Xconomy’s Mobile Madness forum yesterday in Cambridge, MA, was a smash.

A record-setting crowd of more than 250 people headed to the Microsoft New England R&D Center Wednesday afternoon for the third annual edition of Xconomy’s half-day mobile conference. I emceed the event and moderated three of the five segments, so I was pretty busy asking questions and keeping the conversation moving—but even from the front of the room, I could sense an even higher level of focus and engagement than in past years. The tag line for the conference was “Getting Down to Business,” and I think that’s exactly what mobile entrepreneurs in New England are doing: figuring out how to use today’s amazingly powerful handsets and tablet devices to offer valuable new capabilities to consumers and businesspeople, and how to make money doing it.

It’s impossible to sum up all the issues that were on the table, but overall I thought good answers emerged for nearly all of my seven big questions about the future of mobile. How soon will 4G broadband arrive? It’s already reaching millions of people, as panelists from companies like Qualcomm and Clearwire emphasized, but it’s just not very evenly distributed (as William Gibson famously said of the future). What’s holding back enterprise adoption of smartphone and tablet apps? IT departments don’t know how to handle all of the employee-owned devices flooding into the workplace, as panelists from Enterprise Mobile, Ondeego, and Apperian explained.

One highlight of the event was a keynote presentation by Stephen Wolfram, founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, which—as Wolfram demonstrated—is finding some pretty remarkable applications for its Wolfram Alpha question-answering technology on mobile devices. (I’m an especially big fan of the two Touch Press iOS apps, The Elements and Solar System for iPad, that draw on data from Wolfram Alpha; Wolfram is a co-founder of Touch Press.) We’ll be publishing a gallery of shots from Wolfram’s talk and other parts of the event tomorrow.

It’s become an Xconomy tradition to invite local companies to give quick “burst” presentations in between the longer discussion segments of our events, and we had three great bursts at Mobile Madness. One was from Microsoft’s Anthony Kinney, who showed off some of the great new features of the Windows Phone 7 operating system, and another was from Meredith Flynn-Ripley, CEO of MediaFriends, which is making enormous headway with its HeyWire multimedia messaging service for mobile phones.

And we were especially glad to welcome burst presenter Steven Saltman, who used Mobile Madness to launch his new startup, Zizzout. In an interview before the event, Saltman told me that the vision behind Zizzout is simple: it’s a “visual marketplace for people selling stuff.” Using Zizzout’s mobile app, which will be available for the iPhone in about three weeks, people can take pictures of items they want to sell, which get posted to Zizzout’s website and shared with other app users in the local area.

Saltman says he and co-founder Christian Picker hit on the concept for Zizzout after meeting each other at the Cambridge Innovation Center’s Venture Cafe last fall and floating a number of startup ideas. “I said, I have so much stuff to sell, and I sell stuff on eBay and Craigslist all the time, but it’s really a pain. I wish I could just take my phone and walk around my apartment taking pictures, and get rid of everything. Of the 10 ideas we floated, that seemed like the one we could best execute. I said, ‘You do the design and I’ll do the mobile app development,’ and it’s gone exactly as planned.”

Rather than handling the whole payment process the way eBay does, Zizzout helps sellers and potential buyers communicate through an internal messaging system; once they settle on a price, it’s up to them to complete the transaction offline. Saltman thinks the system will appeal to people who don’t have the time or patience to set up complex listings on auction or classified sites. “We are simplifying what is now a fairly annoying and complicated process of posting things online for sale,” he says.

The final and most amusing segment of Mobile Madness was the “Location Smackdown” refereed by serial entrepreneur and investor John Landry, with contestants from AOL, Locately, Skyhook Wireless, and Where. As Landry pointed out, these four companies don’t directly compete with one another, so there wasn’t any built-in animosity for us to amplify the way we did for the “Mobile OS Smackdown” at Mobile Madness 2010. Nonetheless, each panelist made a strong case for how his company’s brand of location technology helps consumers and mobile developers, and how location technology is likely to figure in future devices and apps. By crowd acclimation, Landry handed over the first Xconomy Mobile Smackdown Trophy to Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan, though Where’s Walt Doyle, pictured above, was a close second. (We aren’t big spenders here at Xconomy: the award was an old golf trophy that Landry said his wife had long wanted to get out of the house.)

Before signing off and heading back to San Francisco, I want to underscore how grateful we are for the support of all the organizations that helped make Mobile Madness 2011 possible, starting with Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center, which was both the event host and an event sponsor. Our other valued event sponsors included A&T, Turnstone, the UK Trade & Investment Agency, and the Winter, Wyman Companies. Our partners for the event were Mass Innovation Nights, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, and Mobile Monday Boston, and the sponsors of the mobile showcase in the NERD lobby area were Microsoft, Mofuse, and Pyxis Mobile. Thanks also to Keith Spiro at Kendall Press for handling photography at the event.

Of course, we’re also grateful for the ongoing support of our charter underwriters Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Biogen Idec, the Science and Technology Directorate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and WilmerHale, and our underwriters Aderly/OnlyLyon, AT&T, BNY Mellon Wealth Management, Cisco, Goodwin Procter, Invest Northern Ireland, J. Robert Scott Executive Search, the Kauffman Foundation, Latham & Watkins, Schwartz Communications, Turnstone, and UK Trade & Investment. We also appreciate the support of Xconomy’s venture capital members: Advanced Technology Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, Atlas Venture, Avalon Ventures, Boston Millennia Partners, Flagship Ventures, LaunchCapital, North Bridge Venture Partners, and Polaris Venture Partners.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://danweinreb.org Daniel Weinreb

    One theme I heard from several people was “question answering”. On a mobile device, you don’t want to type in “search terms” and get back a list of links. And typing in a natural language question takes too long. What you want is to speak a question and get an answer. Vlingo and Nuance both brought this up. Wolfram Alpha is also about answering questions but (correct me if I’m wrong) I don’t remember him specifically mentioning voice recognition.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Absolutely, Dan. Much more to come from us on that. We just had a long meeting with the CTO of Nuance, and they and other companies are busy at work on speech-driven question answering of the sort you’re talking about, in partnership with wireless operators and device manufacturers.

  • http://www.aislebuyer.com Shannon DiGregorio

    I really enjoyed the format – the fast-paced panels, mixed with the “bursts” topped off with the really great Wolfram keynote made for a great day. My only disappointment was that there wasn’t a lot of “throwing down” during the LBS throw down. I would have loved to see more real, engaging debate.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Shannon — Agreed! As John Landry noted, there wasn’t much built-in competition between these four speakers. We were very pleased to welcome Skyhook, Where, AOL, and Locately, but since they all do such different things it was hard to get them to disagree violently about anything. The ideal “smackdown” lineup in the location space would probably have been Foursquare vs. SCVNGR vs. Gowalla vs. Facebook. Next time around we’ll aim to line up a more antagonistic group of people!!

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