An account executive who sells aluminum siding to builders needs information about inventory and shipping dates from the field. Using a Blackberry, he or she is able to access a mobile-optimized version of dashboard applications to collaborate with that information from the office in real time.
Meanwhile, a human resources consultant walking into a client meeting pulls out her Nokia N5 and logs into her Salesforce.com account for a quick track record of all previous communications with the client from everyone in her firm.
Scenes like these are not science fiction. It's happening now and they are perhaps the first surge of the next technological tidal wave about to hit: Mobile 2.0. "I see it as an extension of Web 2.0," says Ajit Jaokar, author of the book Mobile Web 2.0. "It's really about the ability to harness the collective intelligence that comes from things like collaboration and social networking. It's giving certain people certain information in a certain way and in a certain place."
The basics on Mobile 2.0
To better understand the coming of Mobile 2.0, indeed it is important to first understand the arrival of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is a new generation of Web-based applications, like widgets, social networks, and collaboration tools that are quickly transforming the landscape of the Internet itself.
While Web 2.0 applications are taking the Internet experience to a whole new level, many believe those same tools are poised to revolutionize the mobile experience, as well. "There's a synergy between Web 2.0 and mobile devices starting to happen. For example, widgets migrate very nicely to the mobile web," says Jaokar. Widgets are mini applications that sit atop a webpage and function as a graphical interface for a specific interactive tool like a map search or a customized RSS feed. It is just one catalyst promoting the emergence of a new mobile Web.
The real tipping point is a perfect storm of technologies now being bundled together in the actual mobile devices. "People have been talking about it for years. Now it's finally starting to happen," says Jaokar.
New additions to handhelds
The following are some of the newer applications to smart phones, PDAs, and Internet-enabled cell phones:
Full Web browser- "Why are people so excited about the debut of the iPhone? It isn't the first truly Web-enabled smart phone. But knowing Apple, it will be the first heavily marketed and mass produced handheld that supports a full Web browsing experience supported by Java Script and cascading style sheets (CSS)," Jaokar predicts we will one day look back and see a dividing line between the iPhone era and pre-iPhone era. "The iPhone will support third-party widgets. It'll put pressure on the entire industry to do the same and really open up the mobile experience," says Jaokar.
Wi-Fi: More handhelds are coming with Wi-Fi capability. Considering that the average cell phone user changes phones about every two to three years, it won't be long until everyone has Web access in their palm of their hand.
Global positioning service (GPS): Having GPS capability on your handheld implies much more than never getting lost on the way to the airport again. Imagine the average mobile user being able to conduct searches for local businesses based on their precise location. While the Web as we've known it for the past 10 years has been about access to mountains of information, the mobile Web will be more about tailored information within the context of the user's actual location.
While the technological pieces are falling into place, it may take longer for today's mobile culture to catch up. Most mobile users with Web access are not actually using it to surf the Web -- only about 20 percent, according to Sonal Gandhi, an analyst from Jupiter Research. "E-mail is still the most popular application at 40 percent. Twenty-nine percent use their phones for travel alerts, 27 percent for directions, and 22 percent for checking banking information," says Gandhi.
What the holdup is
Most industry watchers agree; Mobile 2.0 is coming, but it hasn't reached critical mass yet. Neal Strother, an analyst from Jupiter Research, points to limitations in the technology itself as the reason why. "There are still major drawbacks when it comes to handhelds. Limitations on battery life are still an issue. Keyboards are not as productive and the screen real estate, or lack thereof, is still a problem," says Strother.
Luis Rebelo, an insurance appraiser for Hanover Insurance, based in Worcester, Mass., has similar reservations. "Diagrams and visuals are key to our appraisals. I see that as a problem working with a handheld screen," says Rebelo, who relies heavily on both wireless access to the Internet and GPS capability from the field, but still prefers his laptop.
What businesses need to do now
The short answer is not a lot, except wait. However, it may be a short wait when you consider the following numbers. Right now, mobile devices are outselling PC's four to one. Two thirds of the world's population lives within range of a cell phone tower. In less than a year, more than 500,000 domain addresses with the new .mobi extension (like.com) have been sold. Most of the .mobi landlords are companies and individuals from the United States. The mobile Web is clearly coming and coming fast.
For now a business owner would be wise to consider the following:
Consider, at least, buying the .mobi version of the company Web address. Even if you aren't prepared to launch a mobile-optimized site, stake your claim and sit on it until you are ready. You don't want to have to bid up for it through a broker someday.
Factor in the mobile Web and the potential customer base it will put within reach of your company in the next few years. Don't bet the farm on their arrival within a certain time frame, but don't count them out as you plan your company's growth either.
"Think global. Especially in poorer and more remote countries, mobile access to the Web is the only kind of access to the Web. The devices are cheaper than a PC and, as mentioned, cell phone towers are more accessible than phone lines or cable. "For small to midsize businesses this is going to give access to a global market place that didn't exist for them before," says Jaokar.
Think locally, too. With GPS factored into the mobile Web, any business service that is location based has a new potential.
Start setting aside capitol for new technology in your future spending. Businesses will want a little extra in the annual budget for investing in things like handhelds that are fully Web-enabled, mobile-optimized business applications and building out a mobile-friendly version of the company website.