Mobile Madness Northwest: Highlights, Predictions, and Takeaways

12/13/12Follow @bromano

A great crowd of enthusiastic mobile professionals, VCs, and other future-dwellers slid into the comfy pews of Town Hall Seattle for the second Xconomy Mobile Madness Northwest forum Wednesday.

Chris DeVore, who moderated a provocative panel on location-based services, noted at one point that “everyone in this room lives in the future.”

We’ve held the event for four years running in Boston. It debuted in New York last week and is coming to Detroit in January.

Here are some of the highlights and key takeaways. This being the end of the year, there were several forecasts and predictions made.

Siri co-founder Adam Cheyer—who hasn’t spoken in public much because “when you’re at Apple… they don’t let you talk to anybody”—gave a set of five predictions he sees unfolding in the next five to seven years.

But first, with the rigor of the standout engineer and entrepreneur that he is, Cheyer scored a set of 10 predictions he made in 2004 for what would transpire during the World Wide Web’s second decade. (And Cheyer notes that he puts his money where his mouth is, founding three companies based on his predictions.) He was spot on about the digitization of media, the social networking explosion, the merging of public and private information, and the supremacy of the most usable device for accessing an increasingly commoditized online world. He was less right about seamless structured data—though give him until 2014 for that one to play out—the merging of structured and unstructured data, and ubiquitous personalization.

Looking ahead, by 2019, Cheyer sees:

Speech recognition finally working. It is crossing a tipping point now where it’s good enough that people are using it, providing vast amounts of data needed to improve it to the “Wow, this really works” stage.

Collaborative coding and in-app marketplaces. As an example he points to Spotify—the app itself and the third-party apps you can run within it that tell you when an artist you listen to will be performing in your area. Or Match.com could allow daters to book a restaurant reservation from within the site through a third-party app.

Healthcare intelligence breakthroughs. Fitbit and the quantified self movement are driving a proliferation of data from the bottom up while government regulations are driving it from the top down. Analyzing that data with modern tools could unlock improvements across a broad spectrum.

Augmented reality going mainstream. Other speakers agree that the time is right for wearable computing—Google Glasses and the like—sensors, 3-D location modeling, image and speech recognition, and other advances that will combine to make the real world clickable. Cheyer thinks it’s now or never, however. “If it doesn’t happen in five to seven years, it’s not going to happen in my view,” he says, adding that it’s easier to do with indoor spaces than outdoor.

Dynamic knowledge repositories. He points to Douglas Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demos.” More than Wikipedia, this would be a structured set of all the data on a given topic—global warming, say.

—DeVore, of Founders Co-Op, captured the promise and potential pitfalls of location based services: “People are addicted to their phones. They’re with them all the time. So the phone basically knows who you are. It knows where you are. And it often knows what your need-state is. Used well, that can create incredible value for end users. You can solve problems before people know they have them. Used poorly, you can create massive problems, erode trust, erode brand value—all kinds of terrible things.”

David Shim, chief executive of Placed, put some of the fears people have about location based services—which are opt-in, while Web cookies are usually opt-out—in context. Imagine being faced with the choice of having all the places you went over the last two weeks made public, or all the Web sites you went to in the same period. “Which would you want, the places you went to or the actual Web sites you visited? … At the end of the day [location] is very sensitive, but comparatively it’s not that scary,” he says.

These services, says Brent Hieggelke, chief marketing officer of Urban Airship, offer the potential for revenge of the bricks-and-mortar retailers, who can now alert customers who may be carrying a loyalty card that they can get a two-for-one burrito at the Chipotle two blocks away. There are also promising scenarios once customers are in the stores—where the lion’s share of retail transactions still occur—for helping them navigate and check out faster.

—”Native mobile advertising” is coming to the fore in 2013, says John SanGiovanni, vice president of product design at Zumobi. Currently, most mobile advertising consists of “underwhelming” banner ads that don’t take advantage even of the high-quality displays of modern devices. There are also more sophisticated “rich media” ads that may be better looking or unfold to cover the full screen. The next frontier is the native mobile ad, which has deeper integration into mobile apps, interoperability with social media, and takes advantage of the features of the mobile device itself, while also maintaining the campaign-tracking functions that marketers demand. This “requires more kung fu,” SanGiovanni says, but also promises to capture a greater share of the advertising dollar. “That will be the thing that will fuel the great apps of tomorrow in the same way that brand advertising has fueled our favorite television shows since the 1960s,” he says.

—IP-enabled or “over the top” mobile services such as instant messaging are reaching parity with traditional services provided by mobile carriers. Alex Samano, general manager of Bobsled by T-Mobile, an IP-enabled free calling service, says right now carriers are handling this development poorly. “We see these two things as being competitive, which we definitely don’t believe they need to be,” he says. The IP-based services are attractive, particularly because they’re free, but can lack the quality and reliability implicit in a carrier’s access plan. Consumers will want both.

—It’s time to stop lumping mobile and tablet devices together. There was wide agreement among the panel of e-commerce pros that a blanket mobile strategy is no longer adequate. “They are very different experiences,” says Doug Aley, a vice president at Zulily, of the moms who shop the daily deals site on a phone versus those who use a tablet. The former want to get in and out quickly, while the latter group is in a “sit-back-and-consume” mode. The company is willing to be inconsistent across its platforms to optimize for these different mindsets.

—While there may be more Android devices, iPhone/iPad customers buy more—dramatically more. That’s driving retailers to prioritize development of iOS apps. “The Android app will always… play second fiddle to the iPhone until you start to see those absolute dollars start to matter more,” Aley says. “We see a 20 percent lift in conversion on iOS devices and a 35 percent increase in monetization lifetime value from our iOS folks versus Android.”

—Look for big players to win in mobile payments. Boris Wertz of Version One Ventures says this is complicated market, and it’s too early to call a winner. “I’m pretty sure we won’t see a startup coming around the corner and nailing the market,” he says. Instead, it will be an incumbent from the world of financial services, or a Google or Amazon, and in any case, it’s probably not winner take all, Wertz says.

—If all else fails—or even if it doesn’t—try nepotism. Buddy chief executive David McLauchlan shared how an entrepreneur can benefit from family ties, and not just through a friends and family seed round. The multi-platform app development “backend as a service” is found at buddy.com, a coveted Web domain that several older companies might have wanted. McLauchlan’s uncle happened to buy it in 1994 for $17.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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