Let the Madness Begin: Four New Questions About Mobile’s Future

3/7/12Follow @wroush

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actually make sense. If you simply go to the Android Market and use Google’s tools to search for “restaurant guide,” the first result is a game called Restaurant Story. At iTunes, the first result is an app I’ve never heard of, called Where To Eat. Chomp, by contrast, shows you Urbanspoon, Yelp, Zagat, OpenTable, and Foodspotting, which really are five of the leading apps in the area of restaurant-finding.

Apple must have realized how badly it was being outclassed at its own game, because it bought Chomp a couple of weeks ago for an undisclosed sum. I’m hoping they’ll use Chomp’s technology to completely rearchitect the App Store, which was thoughtlessly glommed onto the existing iTunes music store four years ago and hasn’t improved an iota since then. As for Google, well, it could always think about buying Tapjoy, which recently morphed from an “incentivized user acquisition platform” into an app recommendation service.

2. Cross-platform development—Will it get easier?

Pre-iPhone and pre-Android, the biggest problem for developers of mobile software was that they had to create a separate version of their application for every model of phone. Then of course, they had to negotiate with the carriers to get their apps onto the phone’s “decks” or top-level menus. Today’s world is vastly simpler. On the other hand, if app developers want to reach as many users as possible, they still have to build for both the iOS and Android operating systems, and, if they want to be really thorough, BlackBerry and Windows Phone too. It’s a pain and a waste. What app developers need is either 1) a way to write their apps for one mobile operating system and have them automatically adapted for the others, or 2) a universal app platform analogous to the Web. Like, maybe, the actual Web.

Entrepreneurs are pursuing two kinds of solutions. In one corner you have what I call the “transcoding” companies, like Appcelerator, PhoneGap (now part of Adobe), and Rhomobile (now part of Motorola Solutions) that take software written in common languages HTML and JavaScript (at Appcelerator and PhoneGap) or Ruby (at Rhomobile) and package them into apps that run natively on iPhones, Android devices, BlackBerry devices, and Windows phones.

In the other corner, you have Web purists who believe that HTML5 should suffice to both build and deliver great apps. The Cocktails project at Yahoo, which I wrote about in January, is supplying mobile developers with open-source components that make it possible to write an entire app in HTML, JavaScript, and CSS3, then run it inside a mini-Web browser. This browser can, in turn, be wrapped inside a minimal amount of Objective-C or Java code to create a native app that runs on iOS or Android, respectively. Yahoo used the Cocktails tools to build its iPad news reader app, Livestand. The approach isn’t fully baked yet (or should I say mixed?) but it’s a step in the right direction.

3. Location—Could it still be an organizing principle?

Lots of startups hoped to build big businesses around location-based search or location-based social networking, but that turns out to be pretty hard. Boston-based Where did a great job of building a location-driven search and advertising operation, but ultimately sold its business to the PayPal division of eBay, which will likely use it to enhance its mobile payment offerings. Foursquare, Gowalla, SCVNGR, Facebook, and others tried to give consumers reason to check in from their phones at local businesses and other locations, but only Foursquare has stuck to that vision. (Gowalla was acquired by Facebook, which plans to shut it down. SCVNGR pivoted to local deals and payments. Facebook demoted its own Places system so that checking in at a location is now just one aspect of posting a status update. And by the way, I admit that I was totally wrong in my August 2010 post Why Facebook Places Will Make Foursquare Into a Footnote.)

The answer to my sixth question from last year’s post is that location technology is just a feature, not a business unto itself, with the exception of location-infrastructure companies like Skyhook. But then along comes Pinwheel. I don’t want to make too much of this, as the service is still in a closed, invitation-only beta testing period. But when Caterina Fake, the co-founder of Flickr and Hunch, puts her mind to a location-based content sharing system, it’s surely a sign that the possibilities opened up by the GPS and mobile revolutions have not been exhausted.

The other day my friend Semil Shah tweeted a provocative question: “Q: If Facebook is where we keep ‘people,’ and Pinterest is where we keep ‘things,’ where will we keep ‘places’?” I tweeted back, “Pinwheel?” and I really think that Fake’s idea has that kind of potential. From Pinwheel’s mobile site (soon to be an iPhone app), you can create notes and … Next Page »

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

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