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

To me, one thing seems pretty clear: the changes wrought over the coming 10 years by mobile devices are going to be even more far-reaching than those we’ve seen over the past 20 years from desktop and laptop PCs. The shifts in the ways we communicate, learn, shop, travel, and do business might not be as starkly noticeable as the last time around, since the Internet, which was insignificant before the PC era, is now an important constant tying together PCs and mobile devices. Even so, we’re talking about order-of-magnitude increases in the number of people affected, the new capabilities afforded, and the amount of money to be made.

To grapple with those changes and their implications, Xconomy pauses every spring for a half-day conference on mobile technology. The third edition, Mobile Madness 2011, is coming up on March 9. I’ll be emceeing much of the program, and as part of my prep work I started a two-part column last week on seven of the key unanswered questions about where the changes will be most dramatic and about the kinds of opportunities that are being created for mobile innovators and entrepreneurs. Today it’s time for Part 2.

The industry leaders speaking at Mobile Madness obviously know a lot more than I do about these subjects; my hope is just to provide some starting points for conversation. In Part 1 I asked who the new mobile “gatekeepers” will be, in an era when the wireless operators no longer have so much control over the software running on the phones they sell; whether makers of mobile apps will adopt Web-style principles of openness and sharing; and whether wireless operators will be able to provide basic infrastructure like faster, 4G broadband at a price low enough to encourage ongoing innovation. Today I’ll cover four more topics, including mobile commerce, enterprise adoption of mobile, geolocation, and what a “post-mobile” world might look like. If you’re in Boston on March 9, I hope you’ll join us for the afternoon at Microsoft’s NERD Center and help keep the conversation going.

(Why seven questions rather than six, or ten, or 50? I admit it’s a bit of a gimmick. Last week’s World Wide Wade column was the 128th in the series, and 128, for you non-math-geeks, is 2 to the 7th power.)

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

It almost goes without saying that the rise of the desktop Internet shifted the information balance in favor of consumers and citizens. All sorts of data that used to be difficult or impossible to find—from airline schedules to the weather in Antarctica to the locations of toxic waste sites—became easily accessible online. Unfortunately, as soon you left your computer and went out into the real world, the balance shifted back again. Only the airline could tell you how long you’d be stuck in the terminal; only the Best Buy clerk could tell you how much a Samsung TV should cost, or why it was better than the Sony model.

Internet-connected mobile devices are now extending consumers’ information advantage into every setting, including stores. The dumb retailers will perceive that as a threat, seeing only how easy it is for a customer to walk into a store, scan the barcode on an item with their iPhone or Android phone, use an app like SearchReviews to find dozen product reviews written by other consumers, and then order the item for 30 percent less from Amazon. The smart retailers will see mobile as an opportunity, figuring out ways to reach consumers on their devices with relevant and timely information, offers, and services.

One of the most interesting testbeds for a lot of new mobile services is your neighborhood grocery store. Last fall I wrote about a Bay Area startup called ShopWell whose free iPhone app lets you scan food packages, then call up personalized nutrition labels highlighting the ingredients that might be unhealthy for you, depending on your profile. You might think that would upset food producers—but in fact the company says food companies will pay for ShopWell’s data about what users are scanning and buying; it could turn out to be a far more accurate form of market research than traditional focus groups. ShopWell also plans to offer stores and food brands marketing services such as personalized coupon distribution. They call it a win-win.

Quite a few other companies, such as Cellfire, Modiv Media, and SavingStar, are also entering the mobile coupon business, with the goal of … 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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5 responses to “Seven Questions That Will Decide Mobile’s Future-Part Two”

  1. 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.

  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @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.

  3. 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.