Mobility experts offer developers a reality check

Although Microsoft Corp. said it is extending its Silverlight platform to the mobile space as a confirmation of the handheld’s ubiquity, a panel of experts questioned the limited longevity of gizmos versus the simple mobile technologies for the regular user.

The beta of Silverlight version 2.0 was announced at MIX 08, Microsoft’s annual Web technologies event in Las Vegas last week. Silverlight is a technology platform for building rich Internet applications, or RIAs.

Mobile technologies do exist in quantity, but the majority are sophisticated devices targeted at the enthusiast, said Chad Stoller, executive director of emerging platforms with New York-based digital marketing agency Organic Inc. Mobile developers, he said, need to give the regular user a “real compelling reason” to adopt handheld technology, like offering practical functionality that complements everyday needs.

The comment was in response to a session attendee’s admission of surprise at the panel members’ elevated optimism about the future of mobile technologies. Gizmos, the attendee pointed out, may be cool and initially fun to use, but often quickly lose their value.

The regular mobile user who needs basic technologies for everyday functions remains a large untapped market, acknowledged another panel speaker David-Michel Davies, executive director with New York-based Webby Awards, an international award that recognizes Web sites.

On the topic of broadband access, various panel members pointed out that the capacity will eventually increase to accommodate certain mobile functionality, like music, video, videoconferencing, and file sharing. In particular, videoconferencing will be a big driver behind broadband access growth, said Stoller. “We’re looking at different ways to consume media,” he said.

However, the same audience member cautioned that the panel’s visions of mobile video and file sharing will be impeded by the flimsy mobile infrastructure that exists in some countries. The audience member said he thought the panellists’ ideas will be “stymied by penny-pinching antics of the operators.”

The limited amount of available broadband is a problem when users start “pushing video around” and it will lead to inevitable issues when developers and users hit those bandwidth limitations, acknowledged Michael Platt, director of architecture at Microsoft, who also served as the session moderator.

On the issue of the unmanageable barrage of messages brought on by the round-the-clock user availability granted by the mobile device, Stoller said developers will eventually have to figure out a “social graph” or rules, based on the logic behind daily communications, to influence how mobile devices affect users’ lives.

Along the same note, users don’t want to receive location-based alerts every time they pass a targeted point of interest, said Eric Breitbard, senior vice-president of clients services with Los Angeles-based interactive agency Schematic Inc. Location-based intelligence will play a large role in the future of mobile devices, Breitbard foresees, adding the ability to set “relevancy rules” will be valuable to gaining control.

Eventually, the mobile platform will see the emergence of toolsets to address those communication challenges, predicted another panellist Derrick Oien, president and co-founder with San Diego, Calif.-based Web-based mobile platform provider Intercasting Corp.

Among the unexpected innovations that have emerged on the mobile platform, Stoller cited the use of Google Maps to serve location-based results. Actually, he said that and similar types of technology will help demystify location-based technology, something that has typically been tricky to comprehend from the perspective of the average mobile user.

Speaking of the mobile arena in general, Stoller said it’s always impressive to witness “an innovative idea that doesn’t rely on sophisticated equipment.”

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