Top Three Takeaways from Mobile Northwest’s Investor Panel

I sat in on a good venture capital panel yesterday at Mobile Northwest 2009 in Seattle. No huge arguments or chair throwing to speak of (we’ll see what we can stir up at the next few Xconomy Forums). But some solid and useful observations from Geoff Entress of Voyager Capital, and also a prominent Seattle-based angel investor; Adrian Smith of Ignition Partners in Bellevue, WA, an expert in telecom and wireless; and Puneet Tandon of Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA, who is looking to sign partnerships with top entrepreneurs in digital media and social networking. (You can also see some comments from mobile VC Tom Huseby’s keynote here.)

The panel was moderated by Tricia Duryee, the Seattle-based correspondent for mocoNews, a website that covers wireless telecommunications. Here are my quick “top three” takeaways from the discussion of the local mobile industry:

1. The panic may be over, but caution rules. Entress says he’s added nine companies to his portfolio this year, out of a total of 32 he’s involved in (and six mobile firms, including TravellingWave, Swype, Dashwire, and Treemo). “We’re definitely not out of the woods yet,” he said. “But 2010 might be a good year for selling companies.”

2. It’s not all about the iPhone. Entress and Smith pointed out that Apple has only 17 percent of the smartphone market, so there’s plenty of opportunity on other platforms, like the BlackBerry and devices that use Windows Mobile. “Apple has a huge amount of mindshare,” Smith said, “but the critical thing is the development environment around [mobile applications].” Tandon agreed, saying, “Barriers to doing business with us [carriers] perhaps have been lowered.” Entress stressed the importance, especially for startups, of trying to avoid “getting locked into any one carrier, handset, or operating system.”

3. Watch advertising, input technologies, and connected devices. Tandon pointed out that by sometime next year, there are projected to be 3.3 billion Web-connected devices, and 70 percent of them will be connected via wireless operators. That means carriers will be willing to pay to know “who are the social influencers in your subscriber base,” he said. Smith and Entress said Google’s $750 million acquisition of AdMob signifies that mobile advertising is here to stay—but that the deal was the “first one out” (like YouTube for video), so don’t look for anything near that sort of valuation again. Entress added that he’s working with a number of startups selling new ways of inputting text on mobile devices (using speech recognition, touch-screen methods, and so forth). For all our fancy gadgets, it seems we still struggle to communicate.

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