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

2/25/11Follow @wroush

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 sending you discount offers at the precise moment when they’ll be most enticing—when you’re deciding what to put in your shopping cart. And once you’ve filled your cart, there are plenty of companies who want to help you pay for your purchases; AisleBuyer, for example, has iPhone and Android apps that let you scan items, pay for them securely from your phone, and walk out of the store without waiting in the checkout line. Companies like FaceCash, Fig Card, and Bling Nation are working on working on their own ways to use mobile software and hardware to replace cash and credit cards for in-store purchases. (AisleBuyer CEO Andrew Paradise, Modiv Media CEO Mike Grimes, SavingStar president Mike Libenson, and Fig Card CEO Max Metral will all be on hand for a Mobile Madness chat on mobile commerce.)

While it’s not clear yet if your mobile phone will ever become your uber-electronic-wallet, retailers who want to please their best customers should be experimenting with these technologies. The big picture is that mobile devices are helping shoppers save time and make smarter choices. The tool providers themselves will probably be the biggest winners, but who knows—the bricks-and-mortar retailers who adapt to the changes most enthusiastically might just find that happy, informed customers spend more.

5. How much of business IT can be “consumerized” and replaced with cloud services and employee-owned mobile devices?

It used to be that the technology you used at the office was far more powerful than the technology you used outside it; after all, you didn’t see many suburban homes in the 1960s with IBM 360 mainframes in the living room. Connection speeds at the office used to be a lot faster too—that’s how the whole “Cyber Monday” phenomenon evolved in the early 2000s, as people waited to get to work on the Monday after Thanksgiving to start their online Christmas shopping.

Mobile has changed all that. Now the Android phone in your purse or the 3G iPad in your briefcase is probably one of the most sophisticated, versatile pieces of hardware in your whole office. So why shouldn’t it become the platform for more of your actual work?

There’s been a lot of talk about the consumerization of enterprise IT—by which people usually mean simplification, the replacement of bloated, expensive, server-based software with user-friendly, easy-to-install, cloud-based services. Salesforce.com’s success undermining Siebel in the area of sales automation software and Box.net’s assault on Microsoft’s SharePoint document sharing system are great case studies. That’s still an important trend, and it’s actually being accelerated by mobile devices (Box.net has a great iPad app, for example). But I think something broader is in the offing: the potential consumerization of the whole office, down to the hardware on your desk. We may be entering the era of BYOT—bring your own technology.

Corporate IT departments will always need a few people around to keep the company network running. But chances are you make a lot of business calls, do a lot of work-related searches, or navigate from sales call to sales call on your own smartphone. You do a lot of you work on your laptop—you probably own that too, or you might as well given that you probably manage all the software installed on it. And if you use an iPad or some other tablet to keep up with the latest work-related news or social media activity, it almost certainly wasn’t a gift from your company.

In other words, employee-owned devices are infiltrating the workplace whether companies like it or not—and given how attached most people are to their mobile gadgets, the trend isn’t likely to reverse. So the question is how companies should respond.

Most, so far, are in defensive mode, focusing on security and compliance challenges. Providers like Zenprise have come up with software that makes sure every iPhone, iPad, Android phone, BlackBerry, or Windows phone that employees bring into the building has the latest security features, and that they can be remotely wiped in case of theft or loss to prevent data breaches. (Enterprise Mobile provides similar services for companies that choose to purchase and deploy their own fleets of mobile devices, and CEO Mort Rosenthal will be at Mobile Madness to talk about that.)

But I think there’s a lot of room for new software and services that would help companies be more proactive about the BYOT trend. There ought to be business-optimized versions of the basic communications functions on smartphones and tablets, such as e-mail and voicemail management. (Obviously Research In Motion has a lead here.) There ought to be more apps that connect employees to existing enterprise applications like CRM, ERP, and business intelligence systems. In sum, there ought to be more technology to help workers stay productive whether they’re at their desks or in the field—and to serve that need, there should be a whole business or professional section in the iTunes App Store and other app stores (or at least a way for companies to set up their own stores).

At Mobile Madness, we’ll be hearing about interesting examples in each those areas, from Apperian chief strategy officer Chuck Goldman, Ondeego CEO Ken Singer, and MeLLmo founder and chairman Santiago Becerra.

6. What matters most about context and location data? Is it a business or just a feature?

Let’s face it: the novelty of geolocation is wearing off. Yes, your smartphone knows your latitude and longitude at all times, and can pass this information to apps that keep you oriented or give you localized search results or let you check in at your favorite cafe. Now what?

I don’t mean to sound jaded—it’s taken a tremendous amount of innovation and hard work to get us to this point. On the infrastructure side, we’re all beneficiaries of the billions spent by the U.S. defense establishment to build the Global Positioning System. The tiny, low-power GPS chips built by companies like Qualcomm and Broadcom are modern wonders. Beyond GPS, Skyhook Wireless and Google have worked to make sure that our phones can get a good position fix based on Wi-Fi signals (as it happens, those two companies are locked in a couple of nasty lawsuits over the technology). Companies like Facebook, Foursquare, Gowalla, and SCVNGR have built entertaining social and game layers over the location data, while Life360 is using location to help family members keep better track of one another, and Where has built a mobile ad network that reaches tens of millions of mobile users.

But I can’t help wondering what comes after local search and check-ins, and whether place by itself is a solid enough substrate for successful businesses. There’s certainly a commercial role for providers of geolocation infrastructure like GPS chipmakers and Skyhook. But I have a feeling that, ultimately, location awareness will be thought of as a feature, not an application unto itself. It will be part of the background in the majority of mobile apps—playing a supporting role, not the lead.

To understand what I’m saying, consider the fate of an earlier technology once considered hot: server push, in which a central publishing service initiates a communication. You may remember PointCast Network, one of the highest-flying dot coms of 1996-97. PointCast used then-novel push technology to deliver news, information, and ads to a Windows PC screensaver program. PointCast was so buzzworthy that Wired magazine put the technology on its March 1997 cover, declaring that it was time to “kiss your browser goodbye.” Not to be outdone by PointCast, both Microsoft and Netscape rushed to build push features into their browsers. At the height of its fame, PointCast fetched a stunning $450 million purchase offer from News Corporation. Then it all came crashing down. Corporate IT departments banned the program for using too much bandwidth. Consumers didn’t like all the ads. News Corporation withdrew its offer. PointCast’s founding CEO was kicked out, and by 2000 the company had folded.

Yet the push model lived in on many subtler ways. It’s the foundation of instant messaging and e-mail systems like Microsoft Exchange and the BlackBerry network. There are provisions for push publishing in the new HTML5 Web standard, and in 2009 Apple added push notification technology to the iPhone’s operating system. In other words, push is recognized today as a useful technique in many situations—but on its own, acting as nothing more than the scaffolding for a few news headlines and ads, it didn’t make a very strong product.

I think geolocation will turn out to be the same kind of technology. But right now we’re still in the phase of exuberant exploration in the location business, with quite a few startups testing whether they can build reliable revenue streams on the simple fact that your mobile phone lets you easily determine and share your location. My bet is that location will ultimately be seen as just one of many types of environmental inputs that smartphones can detect, along with light and images, sound, movement, pressure, and of course, radio communications.

I think that’s why the buzz in the technology world about location awareness is already fading a bit and giving way to broader conversations about context awareness. To take a crude example, your phone shouldn’t simply know that it’s at 37.78 N, -122.40 W; it should know that those coordinates are in a movie theatre, and that there’s a movie playing, and that it should automatically set its ringer to vibrate.

Of course, I could be all wrong. In any case, we’ll have some great people on hand at Mobile Madness to debate the point in a “location smackdown” session, including Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan, Where CEO Walt Doyle, SCVNGR senior vice president Chris Mahl, Going.com director of business planning Roy Rodenstein, and Locately chief technology officer Drew Volpe. The inimitable John Landry will referee.

7. What comes next? What’s beyond mobile?

I won’t waste too many words trying to answer that question—if I knew, I wouldn’t be working as a lowly journalist. But I think my colleague Greg Huang was basically right when he wrote yesterday that “mobile is becoming redundant: in technology, everything is mobile…Every company and every tech entrepreneur is touched by this revolution.” Pretty soon, we won’t need to talk about mobile phones or mobile commerce or the mobile Web, because all phones will be mobile, and all commerce will be mobile-friendly, and regular Web pages will look just fine on mobile devices.

If you look back at the last four or five waves of innovation in information technology—mainframes, minicomputers, PCs, the desktop Internet, and the mobile Internet—there’s a cycle time of roughly 10 years. We’re already a few years into the mobile wave, so it’s reasonable to expect that by 2025 at the latest, we’ll be moving on to the next big thing. What will that be? My own guess is that something a little bit paradoxical will happen.

Just at the moment when it finally seems that all computation is mobile, computers will disappear altogether. They’ll sink into our desks, walls, and dashboards, and maybe our corneas and eardrums. Our homes, offices, and vehicles will all be able to talk with us, and we’ll have implants that project digital data across our entire perceptual field, giving real meaning to the phrase “augmented reality.” We’ll probably all have personal AIs—the descendants of Jeopardy! champion Watson—that supplement our memories, manage our schedules, answer our questions, and keep us safe. Eventually, we’ll look back and think it was funny that we ever had to funnel all of our interactions with the global computing cloud through the little chocolate-bar-sized computers in our hands. Science fiction? Right now, yes. But back in 1996, who would have believed that something like the iPad was possible?

It’s all far more than we can address at Mobile Madness. Which is why we’re already working on another Xconomy event, to be held in Silicon Valley later this spring, looking at the future of computing after mobile. Watch this space for the details.

Click here for a convenient full-text version of Parts 1 and 2 of this column.

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

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  • http://kerskine.tumblr.com Keith Erskine

    Hi Wade – This is a comment on Question #5

    While personal cell phones and iPads are the norm in startups, I think there’s a reluctance for employees to use them in larger organizations. The bigger the company, the more likely they are to restrict access to sites like Twitter and Facebook. The personal cell phone then becomes the means to route around the company firewall allow the employee to keep in touch with family and friends.

    As to turning business processes into mobile apps; that will be driven by the general (and sometimes brutal) restructuring of businesses. There might be advantages to having someone do something important with 3 clicks on an iPhone, but if a process can be simplified to that level, why can’t it be 1) eliminated, or 2) done by one less person.

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

    @Keith — Thanks for your comment. Yeah, I’m sure many companies still feel that employee social media activity is incompatible with “work” and that the only way to curb it is to control the hardware in the office. But it’s not like employees aren’t Tweeting and checking Facebook from their mobile devices anyway. Seems like the cost benefits of letting your employees bring in their own hardware might start to change some minds eventually.

    To your second point: Not sure I agree with your bleak, bordering-on-cynical assessment. Doesn’t software-driven business process improvement account for huge productivity gains over time? Seems like there are plenty of work-related tasks that could be made much more efficient if they were overhauled by mobile developers with an iPhone mindset. Efficiency gains can lead to downsizing, yes, but they can also enable small companies to achieve outsize results.

  • http://mobile-web-developer.com/ mobile web developers

    The availability of new mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablets, has made it easy for end users to connect to each other, from anywhere in the world, at any time. However, while mobile technology has improved social connectivity for consumers, and increased the flexibility and productivity of business people, it has also introduced a new set of dilemmas for IT managers who need to protect the confidential business data stored on these devices.