Facebook offers a good example of the uncertainty businesses face. Today, 488 million users reach its pages from mobile devices each month. Yet these visits yield “no meaningful revenue,” according the company’s IPO prospectus. The ads and games Facebook can sell to PC users don’t yet translate to phones. Nearly any company on the Web, small or large, will find itself following users into a domain of similarly doubtful revenue.
Mobile barbarians are already at the gates of vulnerable industries. During last year’s Christmas shopping season, Amazon offered an app that let shoppers scan bar codes in stores and then buy for less online; retailers were outraged. (No one, not even Amazon, stood to make much money amidst the hostilities.) On the other hand, tablets and e-readers offer a lifeline to publishers trying to stanch the bleeding of their print businesses.
Technology businesses are also reëvaluating their strategies as the PC-era market order topples. Onetime leaders like Microsoft and Intel are far behind on mobile platforms and striving to catch up. Apple and Google vie for domination. Samsung, a manufacturer that invested heavily in smart phones, just ended Nokia’s 14-year reign as the top mobile-device seller.
These technology races also pose philosophical questions pitting open-source against proprietary software and proprietary mobile platforms against the open Web. Apple tightly controls the operating system tied to its profitable gadgets and app store. Google aims to increase revenue from search advertising with open-source Android code available to any device maker.
Today, many companies offer downloadable native apps that are walled off from the searchable Web. But mobile-optimized HTML5 is another emerging option. It’s not as functional as mobile software, but developers can avoid the 30 percent revenue cut they must pay to Apple and Google to sell apps. Playboy, banned from Apple’s store for nudity, became an early adopter of HTML5 for the iPad; so did the Financial Times, which did not want to pay the fees.
For consumers, mobile computers are still used primarily to consume media or do basic tasks like send e-mail, take photos, or look up map directions. But the mobile-computing experience will increasingly involve more day-to-day interactions with the world around us: what we create and what we buy, how we work, and how we connect with people, places, and things.
This raises questions about how we will interact with our devices. What’s the optimal screen size? How good will voice and gesture recognition get? And how will we continue to determine the optimal trade-offs between data speed, data costs, and battery life?
One day, we will not need to ask these questions. Computing will occur on a continuum of devices, including PCs, ultra-books, large-screen smart phones, and phones that act like fully functional computers when docked. Hardware distinctions will become fuzzier as we store more documents and photos on remote cloud servers accessible from anywhere, instead of on local memory drives.
The mobile-computer market whose emergence dominates technology headlines today will also be a “boring” reality for most businesses, says Craig Mathias, a longtime wireless consultant who is president of Farpoint Group. “In five years, the differences will all be more subtle than they are today,” he says. “We won’t need wireless analysts any more than we need computer analysts today. I’ll find something else to do.”