On The Cutting Edge — A Year of Innovations: 5 Growth Areas from 2008

A big part of my responsibility as MOTODEV's technology evangelist is taking a first-hand look at new mobile applications. I meet with developers all over the world to see, discuss and evaluate their ideas and try out innovative applications, often long before they are released.

Looking back at 2008, I see a lot of striking innovations – developments that will affect how consumers interact with mobile devices and should also be a part of your thinking as you develop your own roadmap for 2009 and beyond. Perhaps the single best innovation I saw in 2008 was an application that could take a picture of a billboard and extract the text from the picture. So what, you may ask? What it could also do is translate that text into the user's language of his choice, and then read it aloud in that language. This one application had seamlessly integrated four key technologies: OCR, Image Recognition, Language Translation and Text to Speech – all in one simple and useful package.

I'd like to share a list of five other areas where I saw significant innovation in the past year. Although I would have liked to name the specific companies or developers mentioned here, I am not always at liberty to do so. And although I have tried to fit these concepts into categories, I don't mean to pigeon-hole them. Like the billboard translator, the best ideas combine ideas from multiple fields into something entirely new. So consider this food for thought, rather than the meal itself. :o)

Innovations around Mobile Music: This area has seen a sharp upward trend – and it is expected to stay that way in 2009. The music industry has become more open to providing unlimited music tracks to consumers and allowing full playlist management. This growth has also put more pressure on mobile manufacturers to put more memory and memory card slots on a wider range of devices. Quite a few advances were seen in 2008, including:

Over-the-air intelligent searching – Hum, sing, type, or play the song you want and the application searches and identifies it for you, providing details about the artist or suggesting other songs you may enjoy by similar artists. All on your mobile! Fantastic, ain't it?

Background downloading capabilities – listen to your existing music while new tracks are being downloaded in the background.

Personalized music services based on user behavior – your playlist automatically evolves and adapts based on your listening habits, your location, or even your mood.

Social interaction – Share your playlists with your social circle through a variety of modes – online, peer to peer, and offline as well.

Innovations around Location: Finally, location is becoming a key factor in application design. Gone are the days when location-based services meant just maps and directions – ideas have caught up with the technology and location-based data is now being integrated into all kinds of applications:

Finding your way – Applications are starting to help consumers find nearby hotels and parks, local events or nightlife, hiking trails or transit lines, all with maps and directions that follow the user and adjust on the fly.

Social networks – Entirely new social connections can be formed based on the location of a consumer or places he has previously been. Quite a few social networks are starting to pinpoint large numbers of users on the world map to showcase who was where when, and what each was doing at a particular point in time, bringing Twitter-like applications into the realm of consumer broadcast networks.

Contextual enhancement – Applications that can find the orientation information from a digital compass to identify the user's location and pointing direction have uses in both directions: Consumers can take advantage of proximity based search, geotagging, or new methods of pedestrian navigation; content providers can offer targeted advertising, reaching out directly to the right customers at the right time.

Network awareness – Look for additional innovations as location-based services expand from mobile 2.0G, 2.5G and 3G networks services to Wi-Fi and broadband.

Innovations around Payments: In an earlier article on the subject of mobile commerce, I indicated that m-commerce is still emerging and will require more time to reach a point of widespread adoption. But there have been some exciting developments happening in this area as well:

Types of transactions – From remote payments, account "top-ups" and monthly billing to private, P2P (Person-to-Person) transactions, the available options for mobile payments are starting to catch up to what's already available on personal computers.

Near Field Communications – NFC-based non-mobile solutions (such as payments by proximity-based smart cards) are close to becoming commonplace. Look for mobile NFC solutions to catch up quickly once that barrier to entry is thrown open.

Integration with other trends – When combined with the sorts of location-based services or social networks discussed elsewhere in this article, the possibilities for payment services explode, including instant ticketing and highly customized coupon offers.

Innovations around Multimedia: Content is still king, and quite a lot is happening in this part of the industry. Neither DRM nor optimization of codecs seems to be a factor anymore for multimedia or music – today's innovation is happening around the consumer aspects of technology:

Media guides – With the Internet becoming more transparent through mobile broadband, leading-edge mobile applications are catching up with the trend towards aggregation of worldwide public and free Internet audio/video content, served up on-demand. Some of these apps are even pushing multimedia content to users as updates.

Destination apps – Popular content sites like YouTube, Flickr and the like are becoming an integrated part of the mobile experience with the help of consumer-customizable user interfaces.

One-click upload from the mobile camera – Publishing user-generated content such as videos, photos, and blogs is easier than ever. Geotagging media on GPS enabled devices, MMS/Email sharing of media, and adding comments, status updates and more to favorite Internet destinations from anywhere in the world are all coming into play.

Multimedia search and discovery – The ability to easily find video, audio and other media content through innovative search capabilities will continue to drive adoption of mobile multimedia. Advanced algorithms organize videos and present related topics in a way that's easy to browse and discover on handsets.

Innovations around Social Networks: Above all, 2008 was the year of social networks. Twitter in particular really took social networking to the next level, while innovative applications have integrated and incorporated several other social network capabilities from Facebook and MySpace. Today, no innovation in the mobile space can be considered complete without considering the social angle.

Dating and meet-ups – No discussion around social networking is complete without dating – and applications that mix social networks and dating in both mobile and wired environments have been welcomed by consumers. Some applications have also made use of location data that helps prospective daters determine approachability.

Active and passive modes – In a dating app, an active mode might allow users to see each other's basic profile information, combined with proximity estimates, while a passive mode alerts users with SMS when a potential match is nearby.

Monetization – While much of the core social media is free to use, smart developers have still found ways to capitalize on all this social activity: charging subscription fees for chat channels, premium SMS and WAP billing.

Wrapped around all of these areas of innovation is Mobile Web2.0. Several device manufacturers have released mobile widget frameworks for their operating systems, and some of them are starting to provide access to the device APIs like location and file managers as well. Such widgets provide a pathway to more innovation from developers, delivered at an even faster rate.

As we start to step into 2009 – there is one more silent and rude awakening happening in the area of application stores that are helping application developers with a wider range of go to market capabilities. Google has aggressively drummed up developer interest with the Android Market, which follows on the heels of the Apple Application Store and Microsoft Windows Marketplace as a way to directly compensate and reward developers. 2009 will see more of these stores sprouting up as more mobile manufacturers and service providers try to enter the fray. Quite a lot of cool innovative applications are expected to flow out as the mobile applications store frenzy catches on with consumers. However, Remember- actual consumer interest will only be sparked by robust and innovative content and services.

Based on the innovations outlined here, it is easy to see that the olden/golden silos of vertical applications – like "location based applications" or "multimedia applications" – are giving way to a new trend. Increasingly, applications need to integrate such technologies with the contexts of their use. The solutions of 2009 that are bound to win are the ones that take the consumer as their first customer, get the technologies fully integrated and provide users with a seamless everyday experience – delivering what they need when they need it, and structured in a way that's intuitive and appealing.

– Asokan Thiyagarajan, Motorola Technology Evangelist

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