The waiting game for a mobile Internet explosion continued on Thursday at the Mobilize conference in San Francisco, but there were glimmers of reality, too.
"What can I do with this that's going to fundamentally change my life?" asked John O'Rourke, general manager of ISV developer and competitive strategy at Microsoft, referring to a mass-market killer app for handsets that have become as powerful as the PCs of a few years ago.
Even Research in Motion, which won over enterprise users to mobile with push e-mail, sees an urgent need for things that stick with customers.
"The key issue we have in front of us is increasing the number of compelling applications" for both consumers and businesses, said Alan Brenner, senior vice president of RIM's BlackBerry platform. "Today, we are still underserving the market in a major way."
Although most companies aren't yet making much money in location-based services, it's one area where users are getting more active, according to a panel discussion on that topic.
One-quarter of all searches on JumpTap's mobile search engine are for local results, and 40 percent of those are searches for a place where the user is heading, said Paran Johar, the company's chief marketing officer. On Yahoo Mobile, ten percent of searches are for local business listings, according to Lee Ott, global director of Yahoo OneSearch. Skyhook Wireless, which makes technology for showing mobile users their location based on Wi-Fi hotspots and nearby cell towers, has received "billions" of location requests from users, said Ted Morgan, the company's co-founder. "It's an incredible volume, and a huge spike just in the last three months," said Morgan.
The recently introduced location-enabled version of Google Maps for Mobile gets double the use of the previous version, said Steve Lee, a project manager at Google. One thing that's driven that use is the fact that people looking for directions don't have to enter the address where they're located into the phone, Lee said. Even if they know the address, that can take a minute or more on a device such as the iPhone, and that's a disincentive to using the online map, he said.
But the big breakthrough for location capabilities will be integrating them into applications that aren't built around location, they said. For example, Sprint Nextel is trying to get consumer electronics manufacturers to build location capability into devices such as cameras to enrich the experience of using them, said Rick Robinson, vice president of products and services at Xohm.
Location is especially powerful in advertising, and it's "background" location data that will drive advertising most, said Morgan. Morgan and others downplayed the well-publicized concept of location-based advertising as on-the-spot pitches, such as coupons from Starbucks sent to people searching for a coffee shop nearby one of the company's stores.
Location data will be most powerful in combination with other information, for tightly focused advertising. For example, there are already databases with demographic information about people who live in a particular neighborhood.
"There are databases that know a tremendous amount about you based on where you live ... that's how you get all those catalogs in the mail," Morgan said. Adding in information from mobile phones could add, for example, knowledge about where people who live in an area go during the day, which has never been done before, he said. "This is a piece where you tie together Internet, mobile, and thirty years of direct marketing experience," he said.
The more the ad is focused on a type of consumer and where they are at the moment, "the less the ad is an ad, and the more it becomes content," said Johar, a veteran of the advertising industry. But localized mobile advertising hasn't hit its "tipping point" yet, he added.
"The dry cleaners, they're barely advertising online. They're not going to start advertising on your mobile phone any time soon," he said.