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Mobile Community Design
Research and design information for mobile community developers.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Pace of Progress in Mobile Development

One of the interesting things about doing research (as opposed to industry development) is that you're supposed to be ahead of the leading edge products currently being produced. The idea is to think up things that would be useful, but which currently seem impossible for one reason or another.

Example: Backpackers had the problem of being able to bring enough music with them on the road - there was never enough storage, and if they lost the device, then they lost their music library. A good solution was to "stream" their home music library to them while they're on the road, via a high-bandwidth wireless connection. At the time I developed the concept, there was nothing available. There was satellite radio, but it was cost-prohibitive, and the units were large and could only be installed in cars. There were no mobile devices capable of streaming music. Now the iPhone has several apps doing things similar to this: Pandora and Orb. It still may be cost prohibitive while travelling internationally due to international roaming rates, but that won't last long. In 2006 personal music streaming seemed like science fiction.

The challenging thing about doing mobile research is the pace at which the technology is developing. If you complain about there not being enough storage space in an MP3 player, sure enough in another year it's not really an issue anymore. So if you're researching mobility, you identify some really interesting concept and run with it. But it's likely that before you finish the Ph.D., somebody's gone and built the thing you dreamed up - it's both exhilarating and highly irritating at the same time.

Now that I am getting into iPhone development, I am suddenly rather interested in how many of my previous mobile product concepts have already been created; or to put it another way, what was the rate of mobile tech change in the last 3 years? The following isn't statistically significant, but it provides an interesting sample.

In my thesis, I included an appendix of 46 product concepts. I recently reviewed all of these concepts and rated them High, Medium, Low/none for the variables of 1) Market Interest, 2) Development Interest, 3) Already in Market.

  • 23 of the 46 concepts (50%) rated a High/Medium for 'Already in Market'.
  • There was a high correlation between being rated 'Already in Market' and High on Market Interest - so suppliers are responding to demand and creating things there is an obvious need for. These included things like maps, media storage, discussion forums, find resources in the environment and telling people what you're doing (Twitter).
  • There were still a significant number of mobile device concepts that really haven't been completed yet, and which still have high Market Interest. I'm not going to give away the specifics, but they include things like:
  1. resources that people want, but which aren't digitized.
  2. methods of creating groups and pairing people.
  3. ways to digitize money and other important paper items.
  4. things that require larger amounts of typing while mobile.
  5. specific data from local businesses.
  6. awareness of social properties of geographical regions.
  7. timely awareness of critical information of personal interest
  8. niche market mobile shopping and delivery
  9. problem solving assistance
So from my small sample, 50% of cutting edge ideas get put on the market in a 3-4 year time span. Those ideas are probably under development for at least a year or two before they become publicly available. So that means: when you come up with a cutting edge idea - you're probably not the only one having it. However, there's the other 50% of the ideas that either nobody had, or nobody could execute on in 3-4 years. Typically those problems, such as the nine items listed above, are a little more difficult to conceptualize, and more difficult to build. If you're looking for a topic for a start-up, and don't want a lot of competition out of the starting gate, maybe this is a good space to look in.