Friday, May 13, 2011

More Highlights from MassTLC's Global Mobile Spring Meeting

The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council's conference on the global impact of mobility kicked off with an overview of the state of the global wireless industry. The moderator, Professor Iqbal Z. Quadir of MIT began by noting that while mobile phones are largely a convenience for inhabitants of the wealthy countries in the Northern hemisphere, they may be the key to prosperity for the less fortunate residents of the Southern hemisphere.

He reported that due to the declining cost of digital communications, more than 50% of the population in many of these countries, now have cell phones. In addition to using their phones for person-to-person communications, residents of Southern hemisphere countries also use them to pay bills and salaries. As a result, former cash economies now operate on credit.

The increasing use of cell phones has created business opportunities for software that can process transactions, validate the identity of users, and prevent money laundering. Moreover, countries in East Africa now want to become outsourcing hubs.
One panelist, Steve Whittaker, of BT, commented that thanks to the proliferation of cell phones, and the advent of the cloud, cities can now aggregate large amounts of data and track movement. This information enables them to monitor human traffic and better plan infrastructure.

Another panelist, Nick Sullivan, a fellow at The Fletcher School, observed that cell phone adoption rates differ across markets--and that circumstances drive adoption. In Kenya, the built-in flow of money from city workers to their families in rural areas created a natural application. There, the carrier with 80% market share, and a trusted brand, did a great job of setting up a network of self-employed agents to load money onto the phones at one end and unload money at the other.

In India, panelist Dr. Harmeet Singh of Tejas Networks told us that phones connect farmers to their end market. Now, farmers can quickly check commodity prices and calculate margins without leaving home.

The Q&A session focused on our lack of visibility into what's going on in the rest of the world, the North/South digital divide, the importance of the last mile, and queries about who will capture revenue: banks, carriers, applications or phone vendors.

Next up was a fireside chat with Kara Swisher, co-producer and co-host of D: All Things Digital moderated by George Bell, President and CEO, Jumptap. Those who have heard her will understand when I say that Kara's quips were the highlight of the conference. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture her quick repartee here--you had to be there.

Kara opined that 2011 is very different from the 2000 bubble in that entrepreneurs today place much more focused on revenue, although eyeballs are still important. When asked to identify a winner, she picked Groupon noting that getting local merchants as customers has always been a tough problem to solve.

Kara observed that she had recognized the importance of mobile early on, yet, even she was surprised at the rate at which adoption happened. She discussed how hard it's been for many organizations, especially large ones, to shift business models. For example, newspapers assumed mobile was an adjunct business, yet she asserted mobile is and will be at the center going forward.

Both Kara and George said the biggest change with mobile is that the online and physical worlds are becoming one as devices become more self-aware (due to onboard geo-location). Nevertheless, both speakers are still looking for devices to capitalize on this capability and become better at anticipating their needs. For example, George said that applications should open themselves when appropriate rather than waiting for him to command them to do so.

Kara said that for the first time, the business world is lagging the consumer world. Thanks to iPhones and apps, people's business people have higher expectations of the technology they use at work.

When everything is a screen, it ultimately alters when, where, and how people work. Office space will eventually go away.

Today, Kara said people point their phones at things to find out what they are. Someone asked whether that raises privacy issues when we start pointing our phones at others to discover their identity. This conversation led into one about companies increasing thirst for knowledge about individuals--which is powerful and dangerous at the same time.

After these introductory sessions, the audience split into breakout groups for two hours to explore topics such as mCommerce, mHealth, mobile innovation, and media convergence in greater depth before reconvening for a final session. Kara moderated this last session where the panel of entrepreneurs and VCs discussed ways to make money in mobile. Throughout the day, breaks enabled participants to visit various exhibitors who displayed a wide range of products and services to enhance the mobile experience.

Guest post contributed by Barbara Bix, BB Marketing Plus

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