Seven Questions That Will Decide Mobile’s Future—Part One

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revive Palm’s WebOS) and Nokia (which is abandoning Symbian in a last-ditch effort to rebuild its handset strategy around Windows Phone). The point is that in the post-carrier era, the major mobile platforms are still walled gardens—it’s just a different set of companies manning the gates. It’s going to require an unusual level of enlightenment and restraint on the part of these new overlords to keep the mobile software and services revolution going at its current pace.

Here’s an important sub-question: Where is Facebook in all of this? If the social networking service were to start selling phones to its 600 million users, it could become one of world’s largest carriers virtually overnight. (Even China Mobile has only 522 million subscribers.) Admittedly, Facebook probably isn’t interested in turning into Facephone, but the company’s sheer size makes it the elephant in the room in almost any area of consumer Internet technology.

Facebook has mobile stuff, but no mobile strategy as yet. There are nice Facebook apps for the iPhone, Android phones, and feature phones, and there are even a few “Facebook phones” with dedicated Facebook buttons. The Facebook Places feature added last fall is introducing hordes of people to the idea of the location-based check-in. And the company is working to become a sort of single-sign-on-provider for mobile services from other Web-based companies like Zynga, Groupon, and Yelp. But there doesn’t seem to be any guiding idea behind these miscellaneous efforts. If Facebook ever decides to articulate clearly how it plans to keep growing in a world where most of its members are mobile most of the time, watch out.

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

Last summer, Wired proclaimed that “the Web is dead.” It was hyperbole, but the point was that more and more of the data we get from the Internet is presented to us not through a Web browser but through self-contained mobile or desktop apps like Pandora, Skype, Netflix, and Tweetdeck. For consumers, these apps often provide a cleaner, simpler, better-curated experience than what’s available on the open Web. And for content providers, they’re easier to control and easier to monetize.

But as we hurtle forward into App World, we risk losing some of the architectural features that made Web World so great, such as the ease of content sharing. The Daily, an iPad-only news publication launched a couple of weeks ago by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, provides a case in point. As I noted in my February 4 column, everything about the app (which will soon be subscription-only) is designed to freeze in place the ideas The Daily produces—no circulation allowed. There are buttons that let you post tweets or status updates about articles, but if you do that, the links that you share lead Web users to static JPG screen shots rather than HTML Web pages. These image pages aren’t searchable, and you can’t cut and paste from them, or save the text on Delicious or Evernote, or do any of the other things that have made the Web such a wonderful playground for bloggers and trolls, students and scholars, pundits and plagiarists.

The Daily, as Scott Rosenbaum has so nicely put it, has seceded from the Web. And if News Corporation gets away with it—if audiences turn out to be willing to pay for a publication that is delivered via the Internet but is not of the Internet—then the whole cash-starved news industry will likely try to follow suit, and we could all wind up back in 1993, when finding out what the newspapers were saying every day meant spending hundreds of dollars a year on newsstand copies or subscriptions, or physically traveling to the library.

The question is whether some middle ground exists. Can publishers, game developers, TV and movie producers, and other creators build mobile apps that offer valuable, exclusive, monetizable content and experiences, but do it in a way that still provides for public discourse and fair-use reproduction? Or will it turn out that “social media” is an oxymoron?

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

When you buy an iPhone, an Android phone, a 3G iPad, or a Galaxy Tab, you expect an always-on Internet connection along with it—that’s part of the point. Which makes smartphone and tablet owners enormous data hogs. It’s difficult to find up-to-date statistics, but a May 2010 report from AdMob—released before the mobile ad network was absorbed by Google—showed that Android and iOS users spent an average of 79 minutes per day using mobile apps. iPhone users generated 40 percent of all mobile ad requests worldwide that month, and Android users accounted for … 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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3 responses to “Seven Questions That Will Decide Mobile’s Future—Part One”

  1. androidlvr says:

    Mobile apps are like websites so on question one, I think we have to go back to the web days and ask: Who is the gatekeeper of the web? It’s Google, a search engine. Therefore, the search engine for all mobile apps will be the gatekeeper of the mobile internet.


  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @androidlvr. Well, interesting question. I’m not sure I agree that the Web has a gatekeeper. I think various companies have *tried* to be the Web’s gatekeeper, such as AOL and Yahoo, but they all failed fairly early on, because the Web just wasn’t built that way. Google is the closest thing to a Web gatekeeper but the metaphor isn’t great, since you don’t have to go through Google to get to the rest of the Web. It’s an index, a compass, a guide. (I think Facebook is trying to build its own separate Web where it is the gatekeeper and toll-taker — they just call the it the ‘social graph.’ But that’s another question.) So, if we managed to get a Web without a gatekeeper, maybe it’s unnecessary to worry about whether the mobile world will have one.

    On the other hand, to the extent that users’ experiences of the mobile world are filtered through apps, then the mobile world may evolve very differently from the Web. Right now there isn’t a “search engine for all mobile apps” to use your words; there are seven or eight separate ones depending on what you’re counting (one for each major mobile OS plus a few independent ones like GetJar and OpenAppMkt). And I doubt that any one mobile OS will gain unassailable market share the way Google has in search. So, we’re back to my original question — who will be the new gatekeepers, plural? But thanks for your comment!