Let the Madness Begin: Four New Questions About Mobile’s Future

San Francisco is a heavenly place to live and work, but there are two times a year when I would rather be in Boston. One is Xconomy’s annual XSITE conference in June, and the other is our Mobile Madness conference, which is coming up on March 14. It just so happens that there’s a cross-country Virgin America seat with my name on it this Sunday—so I’m looking forward to catching up with all my old Beantown friends at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development Center next week.

As I get in the mood for Mobile Madness, I’ve been looking back at a two-part column I wrote in the lead-up to last year’s event —Seven Questions That Will Decide Mobile’s Future—and thinking about which issues have been settled, which ones remain unresolved, and what new questions have emerged in the meantime.

Here were my seven questions in the spring of 2011:

1. Who will be the new gatekeepers, and how much friction will they impose?

2. Open or closed? Can the best parts of the Web-its openness and interoperability-persist in the world of mobile apps?

3. Can wireless infrastructure providers keep up with demand while keeping broadband affordable?

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

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

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

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

I think a few of my questions can be put to rest. It’s pretty clear now that Apple and Google have replaced the wireless carriers as the rulemakers in the new mobile marketplace. I worried last year that they’d become more restrictive about what apps they let into their respective app stores, but if anything they’ve gone the opposite direction, becoming more permissive (perhaps too permissive). And the 30 percent app store fee hasn’t budged, so business models look pretty stable for mobile app developers.

In wireless infrastructure, the rollout of 4G LTE service across the country has been remarkably swift, with more than 20 4G devices available on Verizon’s network (which covers almost 200 cities) and a dozen 4G devices available on AT&T’s network (which covers 24 cities). The good news is that the carriers don’t seem to be raising their data plan prices much as they move from 3G speeds to 4G speeds. The bad news is that they’re phasing out unlimited data plans, and drastically throttling connection speeds for grandfathered unlimited-plan customers once they go over a certain amount of data per billing cycle.

Commerce will clearly evolve dramatically in response to mobile technology. New mobile payment schemes are on the way, and startups like AisleBuyer and Shopkick are figuring out how to reach mobile users with product information and incentives while they’re inside retail stores. We’ve got a whole panel on this theme lined up for Mobile Madness next week.

But for every box we pry open, there seems to be another one inside. Here are some of the new questions on my mind these days. Most of these arise from conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs here in San Francisco and Silicon Valley over the past year. They’re busy trying to solve these problems, of course—but they have a long way to go.

1. Mobile app discovery—Are we getting closer to a solution?

Apple’s iTunes App Store recently passed 600,000 apps and 25 billion downloads. The Android Marketplace also features hundreds of thousands of apps. But trying to find anything in these stores is like walking through a supermarket where the food has been stocked by monkeys, on shelves so high you can’t see the top. The primitive state of search and discovery in the app world could be the single biggest thing holding back innovation in mobile software and services.

There are companies working on fixes, some of them quite elegant. One that I profiled last November, Chomp, has created its own search index of apps, and uses it to come up with responses to your app search queries that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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