Much debate but few answers at Mobilize

Stop me if you've heard this one: mobile computers are going to be huge. Mobile computing companies, however, are ripe for consolidation.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
3 min read
Microsoft's John O'Rourke, Symbian's Jerry Panagrossi, Adobe's Gary Kovacs, and Qualcomm's Jason Kenagy (left to right) debate the future of mobile computing for the umpteenth time. Tom Krazit/CNET News

The mobile industry is still jostling for position ahead of an eventual industry shakeout.

Over the past year, I've been to a dozen or so mobile computing conferences such as GigaOm's Mobilize Conference held Thursday in San Francisco. And little has changed: dozens of participants--phone makers, software developers, and wireless carriers--have little doubt they are on the cusp of creating the future of personal computing, but have widely different ideas as to how to make that future happen.

Attendees might have been better served wandering over to a different part of the University of California at San Francisco's Mission Bay campus to watch how students are actually using current forms of mobile technology, rather than listening to the same experts debate the same topics endlessly. These folks were mostly looking for ways to capitalize on what they already know: that the immense number of people who are already using mobile phones, combined with advances in processing power, broadband wireless networks, and intuitive user interface designs, has the potential to connect humanity in a shift even more revolutionary than the dawn of the World Wide Web 13 or so years ago.

But if they are trying to make business decisions about how to proceed, they found little consensus Thursday as to which path they should take.

Makers of specialized devices, like Amazon's Kindle, advocated a simple, get-one-thing-right approach. Others touted convergence. Operating system vendors of all stripes, including Rich Miner of Google, urged developers to adopt the technology that's best for their application but warned of the perils of following the wrong path. Location-aware businesses emphasized the importance of location-aware technologies.

I suppose that's nothing new: businesses exist to promote their business, after all. And to some degree, all of these companies are right: the future of mobile computing is going to be about a combination of all the things we need to do while we're connected to the Internet and the specialized things that are important to you or me.

The issue left unstated during the early part of Thursday's conference was that some of these ideas will become tomorrow's Internet appliance makers or Web portals: there are just too many companies trying to do the same thing in this market. The world simply doesn't need seven mobile operating systems.

Sure, it's better to have choices rather than letting one company dominate the scene for 30 years like we've seen with the PC, but a shakeout is coming. And the two companies with the best grasp of the North American smartphone user as of the moment--Apple and Research in Motion--were barely represented before attendees. (Apple never goes to these things.)

Perhaps by the time next year's conference arrives we'll be able to do a post-mortem on the nascent mobile computing industry, and have a better sense of what works and what doesn't. The mass market for smart connected devices is just about to take off, and when the plane reaches cruising altitude more than one high-profile speaker at Mobilize will be still be reciting today's talking points on the ground below.