The Killer Mobile App

So while I'm on this kick, let's chat for a moment about what the killer mobile application will look like. This thought came to me again when I recently saw that Greg is thinking about working on a mobile app for a Siemens contest in Poland and Fred is planning to work on mobile apps while contracting:

This year my plan was to gain a project at a resonable programming rate. I would then frugally stretch out the funds received from that project to support several months of coding mobile applications running in J2ME.

On costs side, the light gui toolkits I can use as evaulations and use what is caled a sign on bonus for each completed applicaiton from a prospective buyer as the way to get a full license of the GUI toolkit before application containing said resulting classes is sold.

I was lucky enough to find four good projects in the mobile device space that could be converted to cell phone and pda devices. Thus, I already have the high level designs of these projects.

The disadvantage of this strategy is that you are not aware of when that paying project is going to show up and this year proabably has been the worse year for such a plan.

The advantages of this plan is that so many emerging technologies converge on non desktop pc computing right now both inside of java technology and outside of java technology that one has a very unique skill set. This skill set will become very much in demand as the demand for mobile device applications ramps up the coming 18 months.

Very nice... I like the idea of prepping now for the future to make sure you have unique skills when they are most in demand. However, this is what I was saying 18 months ago, so I hope that this is a more accurate prediction... Anyways, these two guys got my brain spinning again about what would be the killer mobile app...

I've done lots of thinking about this topic in the past. For work actually. My first year here in Spain we were doing consulting for what is now Vodafone doing a three year plan to maximize the use of and profits from their 3G license here in Spain. I spent a long time looking at the technologies, reading other people's thoughts and trying to best guess what will happen in the near future.

The results of that effort gave me a few insights that I'll share here. These may not be anything surprising. First, new technologies normally copy what has been done in the past before they start to innovate and take advantage of the unique characteristics of the newer tech. An example of this is television. At first, television shows just recorded and broadcasted what was going on in radio stations and in plays. It wasn't until later that they started taking advantage of televisions unique characteristics... DVDs first just duplicated VHS (only the movie). The newer DVDs however all have additional materials, menus, voice-overs by the directors etc. It always takes a little while before people start to innovate with technology. First they have to get comfortable with it, then they can start pushing it's limits.

Following on this line of thought, think about what you do and don't do currently with your computer. These are the types of activities that are going to be duplicated first on mobile devices. And when I say, what DON'T you do, you have to think like this: Do you do a lot of video conferencing? Probably not. Even on a high-powered computer with lots of RAM and a fixed line high-bandwidth connection to the internet, it's just not a comfortable thing to do. So all those 3G pie-in-the-sky thoughts about using your phone with a camera on it are the same. You're probably not going to be doing a lot of videoconferencing even if you can. This sort of thing is an attempt by people who aren't using a technology to predict what will happen when they do start using it. It's usually pretty fruitless to do so.

Okay, so hopefully you have the idea. At first mobile devices will probably aim to do email, web browsing, instant messaging and MP3 playback since these are the things you use your computer for now. Probably not a lot of data-entry since it's too small for your hands, but it's good enough to see and hear info.

So how do you take advantage of the unique characteristics of mobile devices to be able to develop something incredible? Well, let's think about what sort of things a Nokia 3250 might offer a developer. It's got a decent OS, a wireless internet connection, bluetooth, a camera and capabilities to record images and video and sound, stereo playback. So how do you take advantage of all these things? That's what everyone is after right now, and I don't pretend to have the answers, but here's my thoughts:

First, any app you develop beyond the simplest of chismets will have to be twofold with both client and a server pieces. Client apps will need to be designed to run for months at a time, constantly put into hybernation at a moment's notice. And because of the number of potential users, the server side will have to be ready to scale like crazy. You can't just design a small little app targeting just the client any more... everything is interconnected. I can't imagine developing ANY app for the PC which doesn't use the internet at every level, and it's even moreso for the phone. Additionally, all these apps have to interact with the rest of the non-mobile world.

What to do with these clients and servers are really the question. My two grand ideas were these: On the business side, a generic mobile app which duplicates much of the tracking capabilities of those custom UPS tracking devices. Instead of a signature, you use the phone's multimedia capabilities to either photograph or record the transaction. "Do you, Russell Beattie, accept this package? Yes, I do." Right now only the biggest of companies can track their goods and employees in realtime as they move around the world. Creating a Wireless Application Service Provider which will allow any company to sign up and start tracking their trucks, crates, etc. would meet a huge demand. On the consumer side, I think that a massively multiplayer roleplaying game (MMRPG) like Everquest would be the ticket. It wouldn't need to be 3D and detailed, just never-ending and interconnected. While users are on the bus, they could enter the world and play as they wanted. I'm sure this is already under development somewhere.

By the way, I think that the carriers are going to rework their business model some in the near future. Consumers are going to be given a flat-rate plan and businesses are going to be given high-reliability, but with a pay-per-bit pricing model. Then the consumers are going to be encouraged NOT to use their service (as it costs more money the more they use it - this is already happening in the ADSL and Cable worlds) and business users, however, will be encouraged. Thus, just because you come up with the most kick-ass game in the world, it may not be all that popular with the mobile-access gatekeepers of the world because they will eventually (not right now, but soon) want consumers to use less of their bandwidth and infrastructure than more.

Let me say that again, the carriers are the gatekeepers. They are the ones that are going to provide the majority of the services, do the marketing, sell the phones and do the pre-installs. Preinstallations on mobile phones is even more important than preinstalls on PCs. Remember how much AOL and Microsoft battled for the desktop? That's the same sort of thing for the mobile phones: Except that the Telecoms rule that world, not the OS maker. If you want to push some sort of independant app, you need to be in bed with these guys, though Opera did pretty good getting their browser embedded as part of Symbian recently... so it depends. I think that's a pretty rare case. Basically you can't getting around making deals with the devils.

Our devil, Vodaphone, was supposed to have 3G rolled out by the begining of 2002. Our plan for Vodafone was to have them start creating business services with an eye towards the eventual adoption of those services by mobile users. All the stats say that more people are going to have access to the internet via mobile phones than via PCs within the next few years. Those people will want the same services that PC users use, but in a format for mobile phones. The idea was to start creating the infrastructure now to support zillions of users online via mobile phones later. It was probably a good idea that Vodadfone didn't listen to us since we were writing this report in Summer 2000 (!) It's almost 2003 and there adoption of the wireless web is still nonexistant here in Spain for a variety of reasons. Anyways, the idea was to not guess too much what people were going to start doing with their phones, but to try to be flexible enough on the back end to support whatever eventual applications did start to gain popularity. But these were based on dot-com business models where more-eyeballs magically equaled more money. I think now the telecoms are focusing more on the apps that are going to push adoption, but limit their costs.

Okay, lunchtime's over.


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