Mobile

What we learned from VentureBeat’s Mobile Summit: history repeats itself in mobile

If there’s one big takeaway from our Mobile Summit this week, it’s that mobile is facing all of the problems the web faced in the ’90s.

Consider: security is once again a major concern, now that users have significant amounts of personal data on their phones; mobile shopping is causing traditional retailers to freak out; and the platform war between iOS and Android is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of the Mac versus Windows war.

The screens may be smaller, but the issues aren’t all that different. By keeping that in mind, we can better prepare to tackle the issues facing mobile, and even discover some new opportunities.

And with our next MobileBeat conference coming up in July, we’ll be taking a close look at the lessons learned from the Summit to push the discussion forward even more.

Here are just a few of our revelations from the Summit, and how they remind us of the past:

Mobile shopping: retailers need to adapt, once again

As the Internet began to trickle into homes in the 90s, it finally made sense for companies to host their storefronts entirely online. The Internet economy had its sceptics, as well as its fair share of failures (remember Pets.com?), but it proved to be an unstoppable force once more homes got online and broadband became standard.

At the time, physical retailers were obviously not too pleased to be replaced by virtual storefronts — worries that were validated as plenty of major retailers shut their doors, or massively downsized, over the past decade. But at the same time, retailers that learned to take advantage of the web thrived.

The same story is repeating itself in mobile shopping today, as retailers worry about the likes of PayPal, Google, and apps like ShopSavvy extending their influence into stores.

At the Mobile Summit, we brought together Google’s head of mobile Jason Spero, PayPal’s mobile head Hill Ferguson, and the founder of NeuAer Dave Mathews to discuss the state of mobile shopping. Not surprisingly, they all saw huge potential in mobile commerce, but they also had some familiar advice for retailers: play to your strengths.

The panelists pointed to high-end retail store experiences like the Apple Store, which offers knowledgeable sales people, the chance to try out products, and (more recently) the ability to check out directly from your phone.

The rise of services like Square, PayPal Here, and Intuit’s GoPayment also enables small businesses to simplify their payments. So while bigger stores take a hit, there could be a new rise of small and local businesses thanks to mobile payments.

Mobile platform wars: it’s Mac vs. PC all over again

When it comes to the current state of mobile platforms, iOS is to Mac, as Android is to Windows.

Apple’s platform is the closed and stylish option that only runs on the company’s hardware, while Android runs on a variety of hardware with fewer restrictions. Just like Windows, this strategy has led to Android dominating smartphone market share, though it means that the overall quality of the OS and its device isn’t as high as Apple’s.

Ironically, Microsoft’s own platform is still too small to compete, but that’s certainly not stopping Microsoft and Nokia from trying. Talk of Windows Phone and Blackberry was noticeably absent from our platform wars panel, but given my own experience with the Lumia 900 (I called it the best $100 smartphone yet in my review), I wouldn’t write Microsoft out entirely yet.

Mobile media: content and ad issues feel familiar

We had two big breakaway discussions surrounding mobile media, but as is the custom at our Mobile Summit, those discussions were off the record. But I can mention some general findings: everyone appears to be struggling with how to best take advantage of mobile devices (in particular, the iPad), as well as how to monetize.

One person mentioned specifically that finding mobile advertisers now feels exactly like trying to sell Madison Avenue agencies on Internet ads in 1999. The Mad men were initially hesitant, but now the web is one of the biggest advertising targets around.

Effective advertiser targeting is one of the biggest advantages that mobile has right now, but attendees at the breakout session were vocal about being transparent with how they target users. They’re more worried about the perception of insecurity than actually breaking the law. And of course, being able to opt out would certainly assuage consumer fears.

With mobile, it’s time to learn from the past

As mobile is on the cusp of the mainstream — a recent Nielsen report found that smartphones now account for 50 percent of all U.S. mobile devices — it’s especially important that we don’t make the same mistakes we did in the past.

That means retailers and traditional media companies need to worry less about how the rise of mobile affects their bottom line, and more about how they can take advantage of the new mediums. And as for the platform wars, it’s a sign that software companies need to keep innovating, and that we shouldn’t count out viable competition like Microsoft with Windows Phone and Windows 8.

Top Photo: Heather Kelly/VentureBeat

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