Seven Questions That Will Decide Mobile’s Future-Part Two

To me, one thing seems pretty clear: the changes wrought over the coming 10 years by mobile devices are going to be even more far-reaching than those we’ve seen over the past 20 years from desktop and laptop PCs. The shifts in the ways we communicate, learn, shop, travel, and do business might not be as starkly noticeable as the last time around, since the Internet, which was insignificant before the PC era, is now an important constant tying together PCs and mobile devices. Even so, we’re talking about order-of-magnitude increases in the number of people affected, the new capabilities afforded, and the amount of money to be made.

To grapple with those changes and their implications, Xconomy pauses every spring for a half-day conference on mobile technology. The third edition, Mobile Madness 2011, is coming up on March 9. I’ll be emceeing much of the program, and as part of my prep work I started a two-part column last week on seven of the key unanswered questions about where the changes will be most dramatic and about the kinds of opportunities that are being created for mobile innovators and entrepreneurs. Today it’s time for Part 2.

The industry leaders speaking at Mobile Madness obviously know a lot more than I do about these subjects; my hope is just to provide some starting points for conversation. In Part 1 I asked who the new mobile “gatekeepers” will be, in an era when the wireless operators no longer have so much control over the software running on the phones they sell; whether makers of mobile apps will adopt Web-style principles of openness and sharing; and whether wireless operators will be able to provide basic infrastructure like faster, 4G broadband at a price low enough to encourage ongoing innovation. Today I’ll cover four more topics, including mobile commerce, enterprise adoption of mobile, geolocation, and what a “post-mobile” world might look like. If you’re in Boston on March 9, I hope you’ll join us for the afternoon at Microsoft’s NERD Center and help keep the conversation going.

(Why seven questions rather than six, or ten, or 50? I admit it’s a bit of a gimmick. Last week’s World Wide Wade column was the 128th in the series, and 128, for you non-math-geeks, is 2 to the 7th power.)

4. How will physical, bricks-and-mortar commerce evolve in response to mobile technology?

It almost goes without saying that the rise of the desktop Internet shifted the information balance in favor of consumers and citizens. All sorts of data that used to be difficult or impossible to find—from airline schedules to the weather in Antarctica to the locations of toxic waste sites—became easily accessible online. Unfortunately, as soon you left your computer and went out into the real world, the balance shifted back again. Only the airline could tell you how long you’d be stuck in the terminal; only the Best Buy clerk could tell you how much a Samsung TV should cost, or why it was better than the Sony model.

Internet-connected mobile devices are now extending consumers’ information advantage into every setting, including stores. The dumb retailers will perceive that as a threat, seeing only how easy it is for a customer to walk into a store, scan the barcode on an item with their iPhone or Android phone, use an app like SearchReviews to find dozen product reviews written by other consumers, and then order the item for 30 percent less from Amazon. The smart retailers will see mobile as an opportunity, figuring out ways to reach consumers on their devices with relevant and timely information, offers, and services.

One of the most interesting testbeds for a lot of new mobile services is your neighborhood grocery store. Last fall I wrote about a Bay Area startup called ShopWell whose free iPhone app lets you scan food packages, then call up personalized nutrition labels highlighting the ingredients that might be unhealthy for you, depending on your profile. You might think that would upset food producers—but in fact the company says food companies will pay for ShopWell’s data about what users are scanning and buying; it could turn out to be a far more accurate form of market research than traditional focus groups. ShopWell also plans to offer stores and food brands marketing services such as personalized coupon distribution. They call it a win-win.

Quite a few other companies, such as Cellfire, Modiv Media, and SavingStar, are also entering the mobile coupon business, with the goal of … Next Page »

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

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