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

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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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • 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.

  • @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.

  • 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.