A match made in innovation heaven

Two key technology trends are emerging in 2006, and although they may appear at first glance to be independent of each other, time will prove they are very much inter-related: The global ubiquity of increasingly feature-rich mobile phones and the rapid evolution of Web services.

Because in North America we haven’t seen the same use of mobile phones as in other countries (in Europe, for example there are now as many mobile phones as people) it’s sometimes hard to see how important these devices are, far beyond their voice capability. Some people don’t quite get this. Nicholas Negroponte, for example, is championing the creation of a $100 computer to bridge the “digital divide.” But Bill Gates has pointed out correctly that this already exists, more or less, in the form of a mobile phone. SMS has already demonstrated how transformative this ubiquitous crude Blackberry-like device can be. It’s not unusual for people to send and receive more than 50 SMS messages each day, mostly related to mundane coordination or gossip. And the sophistication of the mobile phone is advancing rapidly, while the PC has nowhere to go.

The mobile phone has become an important platform for commercial applications, elsewhere if not in Canada. Many firms have integrated SMS/MMS into their operations, including their marketing campaigns. New applications appear constantly, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, a significant industry is growing around the ability to track a cellphone to within 100 metres or so. Anyone can buy this service in the United Kingdom – all it takes is five minutes’ access to the phone you want to track, with or without the owner’s permission.

Many mobile phones now have direct Internet access, but it’s limited because of the relatively low processing power. The emergence of Web services is an essential component for its true integration into the larger Web-based platform, since it allows the mobile phone to readily invoke remote application services. Each wave of IT innovation has differed from the previous ones, if only because the target markets get much larger and the costs of entry get much smaller – many more producers, and many more consumers.

We have now reached the point where there are thousands of small application niches that can best be filled by focused developers whose cost of entry is small, and a billion potential customers with mobile phones and PCs to buy their services. The Web services industry is, therefore, highly diversified and highly innovative (a recent blog post by the inimitable Cory Doctorow demonstrates this by pointing to a wonderful image of the logos of dozens of Web 2.0 start-ups). A Web services entrepreneur is quoted in ZDnet.com as saying “We don’t care about the Fortune 500 – it’s the Fortune five million – the small businesses – that are doing interesting things.”

The ubiquity of personal devices and the evolution of Web services are mutually reinforcing trends – always an indication of likely explosive growth. The convergence of these two major trends thus represents an area of great opportunity, and not just for the IT industry. All chief information officers should be looking at their corporate strategic plans, and their own application portfolio plans, to see how it affects them.

Tim Warner is an independent strategy consultant, focusing on the intersection of IT developments and business strategy.

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