In his first speech since stepping down in January as CEO of the company he founded, RealNetworks Chairman Rob Glaser on Wednesday encouraged startups to look for business opportunities in wireless.
Several independent trends are reinforcing each other and suggesting that "the next five or 10 years will represent as dramatic a sea change in the digital environment as we've seen the past 15 or more years," he said, during a speech at a Mobile Monday event in Seattle.
That sea change revolves around wireless, he said. Glaser pointed to recent Gartner research predicting that by 2013, the installed base of smartphones will exceed the installed base of PCs. "That's fundamentally a revolution," he said.
He also said that it's important to note that smartphones are getting smarter. While Google started using the term "super phone" during its launch of the Nexus One phone, Glaser thinks that the term is a valid one to describe the new generation of phones. Super-phone users: can choose from tens or hundreds of thousands of apps; tend to have 40 or more apps on their phones; use touch screens to interact with the phones; view content on superior screens; can access the entire Internet rather than a subset of it; and can access location information from the phones.
At the same time, there has been a "massive explosion of media and consumption," he said. "In wireless, it's echoing the massive growth on the wired broadband side. The digitization of our lives is getting to the point where we just assume that something we do on one device naturally propagates everywhere else."
Taking advantage of new opportunities resulting from these trends isn't necessarily easy, he said. "It's not shooting fish in a barrel," he said.
Some of the challenges involve the fact that not all devices have the same capabilities and not all networks offer the same levels of service. Also, building commercial business models and working with the variety of necessary partners including mobile operators, software developers, phone makers and other service providers is complex, he said.
Success for startups may also depend on whether the predominant structure of the mobile market is horizontal or vertical. At this stage, it's uncertain which model will win, he said. Google, with its Android platform, has built a somewhat horizontal business model where it makes the software but different companies make the hardware and develop services. Apple, which is now one of the most successful mobile-phone makers, has a completely vertical structure.
"In my view, if that's the way the industry plays out and there are vertical stovepipes, we will have a much slower pace of innovation and there will be a tremendous loss in terms of value creation versus a more horizontal approach," he said. "I don't think it's inevitable which way it will go."
Glaser gave startups one parting piece of advice: "If you have the opportunity to be lucky or good, pick lucky every time," he said. When he started Real in 1994, he was lucky that his timing was just right because the bigger, established companies were focused on interactive TV, he said. "When we came up with an Internet streaming solution we didn't have big competition for the first couple of years," he said. He advised startups to try to focus on an idea, scaling up before established companies notice.