Jumptap, Mobile, & the Four Horsemen of the Consumer Apocalypse

If you want to see the future of the tech world, come to the back entrance of the CambridgeSide Galleria mall. With your back to the water, go through the first door on your left and take the elevator to the fifth floor. But hurry, because by the end of summer, it will all be gone.

The company there is Cambridge, MA-based Jumptap, and it is moving its headquarters to Boston’s Seaport District in September. Jumptap, one of the most heavily funded tech companies in town—$121.5 million since it started in 2004—makes software for targeted mobile advertising through an ad network. But exactly how it does that is somewhat incidental to this story.

Because I’m not talking about the future of mobile advertising, or even the future of mobile here. I’m talking about the future of the tech titans of our era—Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook—and almost everything they touch, as mobile technology infiltrates their business units and partner relationships.

Jumptap and many other companies find themselves in the middle of a maelstrom. The big guys are starting to look more and more alike and do many of the same things. Microsoft and Google are making their own tablet computers. So is Amazon—which, by the way, is also rumored to be looking at acquiring Jumptap. Apple, of course, makes software to go along with its hardware. And there are rumors of a Facebook phone and browser. Where does this all lead?

George Bell, the CEO of Jumptap, has some provocative thoughts on the topic. He was the CEO of Excite and Upromise through the dot-com boom and bust, and became a managing director with General Catalyst (one of Jumptap’s lead investors) before joining Jumptap in 2010.

“Everybody’s becoming everything, and the thing I worry about with that is, they think the prize is so large that we may wind up with four walled gardens,” says Bell (see photo, left). “That’s lousy for true understanding of consumer behavior and true understanding of targeting and data, because inevitably the four of them will act as gatekeepers over their own environments.”

He’s talking about the idea that Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft (say) will each have proprietary ecosystems, complete with their own hardware and rules. For instance, an ad campaign running on Amazon’s Kindle Fire might not be able to do the same kinds of tracking as a campaign on Microsoft devices. That could impact the quality and relevance of ads and services that people see on their mobile devices. Granted, no one is that excited about seeing ads, but if they’re relevant to where you are or what you’re looking to do, then they become an important part of the mobile experience. And Bell is saying a major obstacle to that future is the big guys each having their own rules.

“It’s a lousy solution for consumers and advertisers in some ways, but the stakes are so large that these four horsemen of the apocalypse, they have the balance sheets to do this,” he says.

What’s more, the companies’ behavior makes other big players respond in similar ways. Amazon could resort to … Next Page »

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