From Kendall Square to Kenya: What’s Hot in Mobile


All my peers in tech seem to be talking about wireless these days. So this past Friday, I stepped outside my world of the data biz to attend the MassTLC tech event on “The Global Impact of Mobility” at the Kendall Square Marriott next to MIT. The event included panelists from industry (Groupon, BT, Cisco, Thomson Reuters, Akamai, Jumptap, Where, and others), venture capital (Highland Capital, Castile Ventures), and academia (MIT, Fletcher School at Tufts University).

The news was good for Boston—we’ve got 400 companies and 30,000 jobs in the wireless sector, the vast majority of which is local. Once we were done with the self-congratulatory navel gazing, we got down to business to review the mobile landscape. My top three takeaways were surprising.

1. Wireless Safari

Despite all the great work on mobile done in the U.S. and in Europe, the adoption of new wireless technology in emerging markets can be the most rapid. Nicholas Sullivan of the Tufts Fletcher School noted that 70 percent of adults in Kenya use a mobile payments solution such as M-PESA and stated that 20 percent of the country’s GDP is moved by mobile daily. This technology has proved to be a vastly more efficient, reliable, and safe way to pay for services and do banking in a country that only has 1,500 ATMs total. To me, this is reminiscent of emerging markets skipping landlines and going straight to wireless—it’s a lot cheaper and more efficient than building a traditional infrastructure.

2. Ma Bell, Ma Bank

As a corollary to the above on new technology adoption, the leading providers of these services are not who you think. It’s not Bank of America or Deutsche Bank rolling out mobile payments—it’s Vodaphone, one of Europe’s largest telephone providers. Maybe there is hope yet for Verizon and AT&T, who missed the boat on Skype to Microsoft. In fact, I can just see the advertisements now in the US—why sign up for a triple play bundle (voice, data, TV) with your telco provider when you can have a “quadruple play” and do your banking too.

3. SoMoLo

SoMoLo is the latest buzzword—social, mobile, and local. It’s the new trifecta. “Hyperlocal, hypertargeted ads are a key to monetizing mobile experience,” noted Tom Erskine, a director of the communications and media industry at Pegasystems and a panelist on Media Convergence. It’s why Michael Shim, the VP of global partnerships at Groupon, who was on the panel on Making Money in Mobile, is rolling out Groupon Now!. Steve Whittaker of BT noted that with all this data, there is now a compelling use for the cloud for wireless. This would include collecting info in a city and then using the cloud to process info at an aggregate level of activities and trends. (Hmmmm…the cloud and lots of data. Now I can justify this expense report back at my database company!)

So lots of disruption and lots of good opportunities abound. What are the possible pitfalls? Several folks pointed to concerns about privacy—not surprising given the recent headlines about location data and smartphones. Also, with all this power and thousands upon thousands of apps, getting to what you need has to be more efficient with more intelligence built into your phone. Just imagine if your phone had the right apps on your screen ready to launch depending on where you were or what you were doing. This should be feasible. According to Professor Iqbal Quadir of MIT, the typical smartphone these days has more processing power than the Apollo computers that got us to the moon. Personally, I just hope my smartphone doesn’t get too smart, especially if I ever need to run the “open pod bay door” app I was thinking of installing.

Lawrence Schwartz, an MIT and HBS alum, is a Boston-area native with experience at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, EMC, and E Ink. Currently, he runs marketing for Tokutek, a database company in Lexington, MA. Follow @

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