Lowenstein's View: 10 problems mobile can help solve

Mark Lowenstein

It's mid-November, which means the beginning of "prediction season" for the analyst community. I'd like to kick things off with a bit of a twist.

But first, here is some context. The smartphone/mobile data/apps revolution, circa 2008-2012, was primarily focused on "mobilizing" or mobile-enabling many of the functions we had been performing on the Internet from our PCs. Messaging (email, IM to text, etc.), games, media consumption (books, music, videos), steadily improving access to mainstream Web commerce sites such as Amazon and eBay, and mobilizing social networking and productivity tools (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter) took center stage. I think we have entered an exciting new phase, where the unique combination of smartphone capabilities, plus their ubiquity and near constant presence, are enabling new categories of applications and services. Examples of this include mobile showrooming, fitness tracking applications, traffic apps such as Waze, and home security services such as AT&T's Digital Life.

The next couple of years will move us further along this trajectory of mobile value creation. In that vein, here are ten "problems" that the unique capabilities of mobile can help solve (in no particular order):

1.      Grocery Shopping/Coupons. The grocery shopping experience is one where mobile has yet to have much impact. There are lots of opportunities here, such as an improved in-store experience, targeted promotional offers, nutritional information, and so on. As another example, it is still amazing how many people manually clip coupons in this digital era. Someone should figure out a good coupon experience – store, search, proactively deliver, and use – all from the mobile device. And forget the "mobile wallet"--how about an app that allows you to store, track and redeem all of your coupons/gift cards on one device, with reminders for expiration dates?

2.      Contextual travel. Travel is stuck in the "first generation" of the mobile revolution--basically, access to airline apps and the same travel sites that grew up on the Web. There are lots of opportunities for mobile to take travel to the next level, such as leveraging big data for a more sophisticated suite of fare comparison and alert services, improved re-booking procedures for delayed/cancelled flights, proactive upsell for seats, meals. 

3.      Micro-transactions. One of the reasons that mobile payments have not taken off in the U.S. is that the current debit/credit card infrastructure works well for most people. Square has been successful because it addressed an under-served market: small merchants. An important area of opportunity for mobile payments is for types of transactions where cash is a hassle or credit/debit cards can't be used, are impractical, or are too expensive. Examples: parking meters, bike sharing programs, vending machines, parking garages and public transportation systems. The challenge is that a lot of these low-hanging fruit segment are connected to the public sector and are highly localized, which makes alternative payment solutions difficult to scale.

4.      A really good fitness-centric phone. There are fitness accessories such as Fitbit and Jawbone Up, and there are fitness apps in phones, such as MapMyFitness or RunKeeper. At some point, the twain shall meet. I think there's an interesting opportunity for a really good, fitness-oriented smartphone. The device itself would be ruggedized, have a fitness "look", come with the right package of accessories, and would ship with select on-board health/fitness/nutrition apps customized for the device.

5.      Better Offline Connectivity. Here's an interesting juxtaposition: we are moving to cloud-based services requiring near constant connectivity, yet with mobile, there are still often situations where individuals have sub-par connections or have to be offline. If productivity apps such as Google Docs and Office 365 are going to expand more broadly in the enterprise, there need to be better offline options. Streaming apps should have more effective caching/buffering systems for when users experience occasional bouts of sub-par connectivity. "Read it Later" apps and Web bookmarks have to work better in offline mode.

6.      A More Intelligent Connectivity Manager. How often does this happen to you--frustratingly slow data speeds despite five bars of 4G or four bars of Wi-Fi on your phone. As I wrote in my last FierceWireless column, Thinking Beyond the Bars, we need to be more transparent to users about the real-time quality of the connection they have, combined with an easy and understandable way to display this information, for both cellular and Wi-Fi. A color coded schema communicating minimum latency or download speeds for certain functions, such as VoIP or video streaming, would be helpful in managing user expectations – and perhaps create upsell opportunities.

7.      More Effective Local Advertising. Mobile advertising is now a significant market. Brands are starting to allocate real budget toward mobile. Yet, despite numerous attempts, nobody has really cracked the code on targeted, local advertising. To me, three things really need to happen here: more effective, contextual ads; more targeted, pro-active (with opt-in) local coupons/promotions, and better services for small businesses.

8.      Better Services for Small Businesses. There are millions of small businesses in the U.S. They are completely overwhelmed with most things digital.  There is a significant opportunity to help local businesses develop a "mobile presence," which I believe consists of three primary capabilities: a mobile-accessible Web site; a suite of marketing tools that help them effectively reach mobile users; and an easier-to-navigate ecosystem to deliver targeted local advertising. An example of a firm that sees the SMB opportunity for mobile is PagePart, led by a colleague of mine and co-founder of Constant Contact.

9.      Thinking Differently About the Connected Car. A huge amount of investment is going into the connected car. For the most part, I think the ecosystem is going at it the wrong way. First, automobile planning cycles are way too lengthy for the technology development curve. Second, most "connected car" systems are overly hardware centric and proprietary. I'd like to see a more software, app-centric development model for the connected car, and improved "docking" capabilities for existing mobile devices. Also, we need to rethink the connectivity services framework for cars, given the wider range/variability of connection quality we see in moving vehicles.

10.  New Business Models for Video. Keeping up with the explosion of demand for mobile data, which is largely driven by video, is the number one worry point for operator CTOs. Current mobile pricing, averaging $10 per GB, discourages use of video on mobile for anything but "snack" content. The mobile industry needs to get more creative about pricing options for video services.  I'd like to see variable pricing for rich media; sponsored/advertised content; creative MVNO options from companies such as Amazon and Netflix; differentiated pricing for streaming over mobile (like iTunes does for HD vs. standard); and the ability to buy temporary data "boosts" for video. If we are able to more intelligently and price-effectively manage and deliver video, then a better average service could be delivered to more users.

I'd welcome your feedback on these ideas, plus your thoughts on other "problems" mobile might help solve.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.