Where's Mobile's Killer App?
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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It always seems to come down to the killer app.
In personal computer lore, it was spreadsheets (VisiCalc on the Apple II and Lotus 1-2-3 on the IBM PC) that established the early desktop computers as an indispensable business tool. Desktop publishing helped the Macintosh get a foothold with professionals and Netscape's browser made the Internet accessible to millions of users for the first time.
The smartphone industry has had its share of hits already, including the phenomenal success of Research in Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry line for keeping business users securely connected to corporate e-mail and, more recently, the iPhone -- with its touchscreen interface and highly regarded mobile Web experience.
But smartphones, representing about 15 percent of the overall phone market by industry estimates, are a high-end niche. What kind of must-have application will it take to expand the market?
One hot area of discussion here this week at the Mobile Content & Marketing Expo is location-based services -- the idea that your mobile device will provide content, services and advertising based on your geographic location. (The Expo is owned by Jupitermedia, parent company of InternetNews.com).
Joe Laszlo, director of research at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an online ad industry association, has been a fan of location-based services but said the technology has been long on promise and short on delivery for years.
"I'm starting to think consumers don't want it," Laszlo said during a panel discussion here. "Maybe, in the U.S., there are location-aware applications, but not a 'killer app.'"
With built-in GPS and other technology in place, it's easy for applications and services to recognize your location and, for example, offer a coupon to a nearby store. But Laszlo said there are still privacy and control issues to be sorted out.
"I'm comfortable people knowing I'm in San Jose, but not that I'm in Conference Room B at the San Jose Marriott," he said. "There's a huge gray area of how consumers will control the granularity of their location."
But other experts here said the arrival of location-based services opens up new opportunities to developers and value to end users.
"I'm excited about location," said Matt Womar, a project leader with the World Wide Web Consortium, a non-profit, Web standards organization. "I want my preferences set on where I am in my house. I want to see things go far beyond what ZIP code I'm in for movie locations."
The iPhone and several other mobile devices already contain what Womar calls a ridiculous number of sensors that are leading to new applications. One example: "There are iPhone applications now that let you take you hold your wrist to the microphone and take your blood pressure," he said.
From e-mail to telepresence
Networking giant Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) sees a lot of potential in a new generation of rich content mobile applications. Ben Gibson, senior director of mobility solutions marketing at the company, said Cisco is experimenting with test groups to see how video communications, what it calls "telepresence," can replace traditional office e-mail.
"In the future, we're going to be more mobile -- not fixed to one desktop," he said. "In a more interactive, agile environment, we think video will have a play there."
For now, he said mobility is "very siloed," with devices powered by different operating systems. Open source, industry standards and other developments promise to change the so-called walled garden of some platforms that limit their use to particular devices.
"We're certainly not there yet with networks being truly open to catalyze innovation," Gibson said. "There have been some nice, encouraging moves, but I don't think anyone would argue we're in a revolutionary environment."
Gibson said Cisco recently held a meeting with representatives and CIOs from 40 universities. "They are the ultimate petri dish for the next-generation workforce," he said. "What's interesting there [at universities] is that everything is already mobile. The business world isn't ready for that."
He also noted college students' propensity to use social networks, chat and other alternative means of communication.
"University students aren't that e-mail-oriented," he said.