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Mobile technology and business - what to look for

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 10, 2012 - The advent of big data will mean changes in business. Big data alone is not the end of the road, but a steppingstone toward making this information truly useful. The ultimate goal is in moving toward predictive analytics. The first of these types of applications set to dominate the mobile space are showing up in consumers’ hands. Apple’s Siri and its recently launched Android competitor, Google Now, are prime examples of predictive analytics applications.

Taking data gleaned from millions of users, coupled with the myriad data points that are being tracked on your own device, both Apple and now Google are attempting to give you the best potential answers rather than force you to find them for yourself from a sizeable volume of search results.

These types of recommendations, driven by predictive analytics, will become increasingly more common. When faced with too many choices, studies (not to mention personal experience) have shown that people tend to sub-optimize. A world with millions of potential options based on a seemingly infinite amount of information, gives us more than ample chance to fulfill that promise. Eric Schmidt, while still CEO at Google, told the Wall Street Journal a couple of years back that the future of search was recommendations. That future is now.

While not available yet, it isn’t too hard to imagine that the apps being built by your company will have the ability to integrate into Siri or Google Now. You will need the data and insight that has been collected over time to provide similar types of recommendations, carefully guiding customers based on their needs and what you know about them, presenting relevant information first.

The key will be relevance, which in this world lives in an interesting but virtuous circle. The more information you have, the more likely your chance of making a relevant recommendation. To achieve this however, it will be necessary to gather more and better information. With mobile’s usage patterns and location-based nature, this is now easier than ever before.

The Competitive Drive

Opening these platforms will expose both Google and Apple to some level of risk. Siri has been the butt of some early jokes, opening it up to developer apps outside of Apple’s control only serves to make this worse. Google, which actually scores better than Siri in terms of relevance, runs the same risk.

So why would these vendors do this? The answer lies at the heart of the platform war between these two dominant players. This war has greatly benefited the consumer and will continue to drive innovation at an unprecedented pace to capture and maintain the hearts and minds of application developers, which will be necessary to establish and maintain their positions within the ecosystem. This is core to value creation for both tech behemoths.

The baseline disruption has occurred, and while smartphones will continue to improve, getting more powerful, having better cameras and even dropping fewer calls, physically they are increasingly looking the same. Given this evolutionary course, to differentiate their products, companies will need to add ever more powerful features and extensions in the “cloud.” As I had written many months back, future competition here will be driven by both business models and features.

Apple and Google will certainly face competition. The Microsoft platform, a less-than-stellar dark horse thus far, is getting more interest. A blog at FlurryAnalytics shows a surprising uptick in new project starts in the mobile arena for Microsoft.

Based on a recent announcement of the acquisition of UpNext, a 3D mapping company, by Amazon, that company may also enter the mobile phone fray. Having had strong success with the Kindle Fire, Amazon would need a phone to compete with the other players mentioned here in the 4-screen arena (PC,phone, tablet and TV).

Facebook has also been rumored to be kicking around the idea of a mobile device.

Watching the adoption and trends in this area will be key for businesses moving forward. Determining which devices to target in an increasingly fragmented world of differing operating environments and device sizes will be crucial to reaching your target audience.

Your phone will tell on you

As time goes by, your phone will know more about who you are, where you live, what you like and what you might be doing – all while protecting your anonymity. Mobile devices will be increasingly able to sense and interact with other devices around you through vehicles such as NFC, Near Field Communication. They will also protect what’s referred to in the trades as PII, Personally Identifiable Information.

This means your device could tell another device at a local merchant your gender, potential age range, whether you are near your home etc. …without revealing that you are Joe Smith from 1234 Chouteau Avenue, St. Louis Mo. Over time, this type of information exchange will make your shopping trip, doctor’s visit or other service-related experience, better, faster and perhaps more enjoyable. There will be a lot of questions about privacy and identity that will have to be dealt with as we move along, but such is the price of progress.

The ability to precisely target your exact location will also continue to improve. In March, Broadcom introduced the next generation of location sensor technology that enables indoor positioning to the level of a specific aisle within a store, ushering in what it referred to as “Place Based Applications.” This type of accuracy level will substantially change selling and service models in retail and service industries.

Visual Integration

While many of the visions around the future of mobile have often centered on Augmented Reality (AR) applications, success here on a grand scale has proven illusive. Undoubtedly we will get there over time with specific applications such as Google’s Glass Project, providing an interesting peek into the potential of what’s to come.

In the interim, the likely entry point for many of these capabilities will likely come from more targeted, narrower scope vertical applications such as Snapshop, which shows how furniture might look inside your home before you buy it; Dishpointer, an app for finding the exact angle for setting up your satellite dish; or Golfscape, which turns your iPhone into a range finder on the golf course. This type of thinking should provide a very fertile for innovation for businesses looking to raise the bar for providing their customers with novel and practical applications.

While we watch the larger AR world evolve, the simpler side of using the visual capabilities of mobile devices is rapidly taking hold. Between 2011 and 2012, the Multi-Channel Merchant survey saw the use of QR codes rise to 47 percent from 8 percent across retailers they surveyed. More and more people are becoming conversant with the black and white codes. QR readers are free, easy to use and in wide array. It is highly likely that QR codes will become recognized by and integrated into a phone’s baseline set of camera functions, making them, or a more marketing savvy alternative such as SnapTags, part of the normal functionality. Point and click behavior in reference to these objects by the consumers will become the norm, creating significant opportunities for companies and brands.

Summing It Up

Mobile devices are revolutionizing web surfing, navigation, video and telecommunications. Their impacts on retail, gaming and numerous other industries are growing. As the technologies mature and advance, they will become ever more integrated into the fabric of how business is done. This will be true in business to business, business to consumer as well as government, education and almost any other sector.

Being effective will require planning and commitment. The rate of change will level out over time, but it will continue to be quite high for the foreseeable future. The average shelf life for a new phone model now is roughly only six to nine months, and average consumers roll their primary device over every two years. Given that, most connected consumers have more than one device, this velocity will ensure a continuity stream for advancing new features into the market at a blistering pace. The risk of not being in the game is quite high, and once you have entered you will be pressed to keep up or risk falling behind.

The unfortunate part of the Moore’s Law continuum is that many compete but a highly disproportionate percentage of the spoils accrue to the victor. Your customers’ expectations will continue to grow and your interactions with them will likely include an ever-stronger mobile component.

It’s going to be a long, high stakes game from wherever you stand.

Bud Albers is on the Beacon's Board. You can follow @budalbers on Twitter.