Interesting insights from MobileBeat 2008

At the Silicon Valley conference, aimed at developers and executives in the mobile-device market, conversation centers on the iPhone as a development platform.

On Thursday, I attended MobileBeat 2008, a new conference here in Silicon Valley focused primarily on cell phones broad enough to encompass closely related gizmos like Apple's iPod Touch and--at least in theory--mobile Internet devices.

The event was hosted by VentureBeat, where a great many blog posts can be found that go through all the sessions and significant announcements from the conference. (My thanks to VentureBeat writer Dean Takahashi, who invited me to the conference.)

MobileBeat2008 logo

So rather than covering all that ground over again, I'll summarize some of the interesting bits of information I picked up during the day.

First, the event took place in a building I haven't visited in many years. Back when I was with Microprocessor Report, it was the local headquarters of Philips Semiconductor. I met there occasionally with the folks making Philips' MIPS processors, especially for early Pocket PC systems.

Today, the building is owned by Plug and Play Tech Center, a venture incubator where some 140 start-ups have office space, and access to venture capital and advice. It seems like a great setup for entrepreneurs who aren't yet ready to fill a whole building with engineers.

Before the conference opened, I spoke with Saeed Amidi, president of the associated firm and a general partner at Amidzad Partners, which funded many of the companies in the center. From what Saeed told me, his companies have been very busy, and very successful, for many years now. A good person to know, I think.

The first morning session was a panel aimed at developers of software for mobile devices. It set a tone that carried through the rest of the day: Apple's iPhone, by virtue of the iPhone 2.0 software release and the App Store, has instantly become the single most important mobile-application development platform.

One speaker, Mike Rowehl of Skyfire, took the contrary position: that mobile-application developers should focus exclusively on more portable browser-based applications, unless there's something they simply can't achieve without writing native code. Since Skyfire makes a browser for mobile phones, this recommendation was fairly predictable, but I can't argue with it. If a browser-based application is good enough, it's good enough.

Rowehl brought up another theme frequently echoed through the day: that simplicity and fun are key factors in the choices of many mobile-application developers. He said Google's Android platform is "just more fun" than others, and singled out Symbian as an example of a platform that's not so much fun.

Later in the morning, during a different panel discussion, Rupert Young of AT&T declined to give any figures about iPhone sales, except to say the company's iPhone business has been "meeting any expectation that anyone might have had."

On the same panel, Rick Segal of the BlackBerry Partners Fund--a venture fund associated with Research in Motion, which makes the BlackBerry--said his firm is now more interested in cross-platform applications than those that run on a single platform. That seemed to imply interest in more than BlackBerry-only applications. He said there are 6,500 applications available for the BlackBerry today, but that most are for vertical markets such as health care.

Since AT&T wouldn't talk about anything related to the iPhone, and nobody from Apple was speaking at the conference (or in the audience, as far as I noticed), it was left to various speakers to discuss iPhone-related rumors.

Shawn Carolan of Menlo Ventures, for example, said he knows of cases where third-party iPhone applications have been blocked by Apple because they conflicted with Apple's own product development plans. He also said that when a third-party iPhone application carries service fees (such as subscriptions), Apple also gets 30 percent of that revenue.

I can see why Apple deserves 30 percent of an application's selling price, but I don't understand why it should get part of any service revenue, since Apple presumably incurs little or no corresponding expenses. (And just for the record, I also have no idea whether Carolan's comment is true.)

Actually, I see in my notes that Young did offer one interesting tidbit, saying he believes some iPhone developers have agreed to give Apple more than 30 percent of their gross revenue in order to get more prominent positions in the App Store: "What I hear is that they're cutting side deals beyond the core 30 percent to be featured." I hope I'm not getting him in trouble for passing that along, but it was in a public panel session.

Later in the day, Jason Devitt of Skydeck passed along the statistic (unsourced) that 10 percent of iPhone users also have a BlackBerry. I wonder if the iPhone 2.0 improvements for business users, such as better Outlook integration, will change that.

Skydeck, by the way, makes an interesting application that digs into the records for your cell phone account to help you track whom you've been calling--and, with their permission, who your contacts have been calling! I found that fairly stunning, and I wonder how many of Skydeck's customers give permission for their call records to be passed along like that.

Sam Altman of Loopt, during a demo of his company's location-based service platform, opined that "location (support) is really badly broken on everything except iPhone," but I didn't quite catch why he thought so.

I heard something from Greg Yardley of Pinch Media that really surprised me: the great majority of downloads from the iPhone App Store are not the free applications, but rather the paid ones.

I have to say that I sometimes find myself preferring software I have to pay for, rather than the free stuff, because it seems to me that (despite whether it's true) that at least someone's putting his or her professional reputation on the line when they sell software. I don't have any idea if that's true of iPhone users generally, though. (Here's a piece on Pinch's site giving the data.)

And, finally, the most impressive statistic of the day (in my opinion) came in the last panel of the day (hosted by CNET's own Dan Farber) from AdMob, a start-up that facilitates placing ads into mobile applications.

AdMob says it is now serving 3.5 billion ads per month to mobile devices. (See this live sampling of AdMob's traffic.) That's pretty good for a small company that's only been around for two years.

AdMob CEO Omar Hamoui told us that ads from major brands can bring in more than $30 per thousand views, with per-click fees ranging up to about 20 cents. Do the math! Even assuming that these figures are just the high end of the range, the total numbers are very promising indeed. Who knows what AdMob's business could be like, once all cell phones are smartphones?

Perhaps in response to these figures, AdMob won a sort of popularity contest among MobileBeat attendees at the end of the day, receiving more votes than all the other start-ups that had been given a chance to give short presentations to the audience. Well deserved, I think.