Long Road To Good Mobile Apps

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Apple’s iPhone is rightly credited as a breakthrough mobile device, but experts in mobile technology say the industry is only starting to innovate.

“We’re just getting starting even with three and a half billion mobile phones” already out there, said Bob Iannucci, chief technology officer and senior vice president at Nokia (NYSE:NOK), during a keynote address at the Mobile Future conference here. Iannuci was one of many notable speakers at the one-day conference, sponsored in part by Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley campus.

While touting Nokia’s giant market share (39 percent globally) and technology advances, Iannucci criticized the mobile industry for being too focused on technology for its own sake over a focus on features that would benefit consumers. He even took a few shots at his own company. “I worry about the biases innovators bring to the table,” said Iannucci. “Technology can be an end unto itself.”

In an oblique reference to the iPhone, Iannucci talked up Nokia’s competing N95 device, calling it a technological marvel with 7 radios, 11 antennas and two cameras (including one for video conferencing), and on a device that runs on a mere 3 watts of power.

The N95 also has three accelerometers, technology that measures movement and lets the programs written for it, respond in kind.

But the iPhone, which also includes an accelerometer, is more widely credited as using the technology to make its device more user-friendly. The lesson here, Iannucci said, is that “we don’t expose the value to developers.”

Help Wanted: Standard Platforms

One of the big problems facing mobile developers is the lack of a standard platform. Iannucci recalled earlier mainframe, minicomputer and PC computing eras that started with competing, incompatible units. In each case, the industry eventually migrated to a standard platform for software developers and service providers. For now, he said the mobile industry has achieved billions of sales, but is held back by the lack of a standard platform.

As those standards develop, Iannucci and other speakers agreed that a new wave of applications will flourish, starting with location-based services. In the near future he said some mobile devices will be differentiated by how much information about the user they can sense. Just as cell phone makers already produce more embedded digital cameras than standalone digital camera makers make, Iannucci said soon there will be more embedded GPS units in mobile devices than standalone units.

Push Harder

During a panel discussion about innovative mobile applications, Dan Siewiorek, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, said he’s particularly excited by the concept of mobile devices used as virtual coaches. Some of the research at HCII make use of accelerometers in a small computing device attached to an arm band. The device detects, for example, when a weight lifter is struggling and can generate encouragement in the computer-generated voice of a drill sergeant or “a sexy female voice” depending on the user’s preference.

Another virtual coach example is where a portable device with “machine learning algorithms” might guide a wheelchair user to use the correct stroke to move the wheels so as to avoid carpal tunnel injury. “I think the virtual coach concept takes us to the next round of mobile computing,” said Siewiorek.

Thad White, vice president of mobile applications developer 3Jam, said his company is focused on what he said has always been the primary application for mobile devices: communications. Before 3Jam, White worked on mobile apps at Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) when the company had over 30 mobile apps including ways to gather sports and news. “One application generated half of all the traffic, Yahoo Mail,” he said.

3Jam is developing what it calls SMS 2.0, an advanced version of text messaging that will still work with basic mobile phones. Unlike basis SMS , SMS 2.0 will let you do things like send a message to a group of friends and let everyone know who received it; add attachments and provide a threaded inbox view.

While you can do some of these things with other applications – like instant messaging – White said 3Jam’s goal is to make those features available to all mobile phone users. He said basic text messaging is already a $70 billion industry worldwide.

The panel agreed the mobile industry faces plenty of challenges, concurring with Iannucci’s lament over the lack of a standard platform.

“I don’t know the answer to fragmentation, but we have to collectively look at it,” said Madeline Duva; president of 3rd Eye Consulting.

Although the jury is very much out on whether it will succeed, last fall Google (NASDQ:GOOG) and partners launched the Open Handset Alliance, an open developer platform for mobile devices designed to establish a developer platform that would support a broad range of mobile devices.

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