The Girona airport, from where I will fly back to Italy, is surrounded by cranes, new parking lots and maybe, new terminals in construction. The summer-like weather, despite that it is only February, makes you feel like, at least this part of Spain, is a small Doha. It’s not immediately clear to tourists and business people traveling like me, who choose this airport for budget reasons (note for VC interested in investing in Expert System: yes, we are budget sensitive), whether the constructions had started during the economic boom and then slowed down, or the new infrastructures were already planned to be ready after what is now known as the Great Depression II. It doesn’t matter. To those who see the glass half-full, they are still icons of a better future to come. Images that cheer up even someone who has just attended the Mobile World Congress of Barcelona, and heard for three days complaints like “it was better last year”, “the Nokia party two years ago was something different”, “at this point the sector is mature”.
It was my first experience at the Congress, so I can’t make any comparisons. But my impression was of a lively event, with significant investments made by manufacturers, and, as usual, a frantic attention of the media. Being more familiar with events dedicated to innovative software, I immediately noticed that the crowd was made up by a large majority of men in dark suits and ties, that many booths had hostesses like it was still the ‘80s fair stands, and by the fact that the ghost of Apple dominated the scene. The ghost showed up on the desktop of the new smartphones launched by the competitors (in the form of iPhone-like small squares lined up in rows and inevitably, activated with a touch of the screen), in the names chosen by the manufacturers and operators to launch new services (as reported by TechCrunch), and as hope for the many start-ups that had developed potentially revolutionary applications but had clashed with a market still controlled by the mobile operators and therefore slowing down the adoption of the new applications, practically preventing the possibility to gather quick success and, if needed, more simply, a fast feedback from the market.
As Thomas Clayton, CEO of Bubble Motion, explained to the crowd attending the Business Services seminar, the market for mobile applications is far more complex than the Internet application market. “We need to develop our applications for different operative systems, whose number is constantly increasing (iPhone, Android, etc.), but, at the same time, we don’t have the opportunity, which for example Facebook or LinkedIn have, to have hundreds of small releases every year, that are very useful to evaluate, in real time, the features users appreciate most. All this prevents innovation and makes it difficult for new companies like ours, to prosper.”
I am new to the mobile sector. As a consumer or business user, I am happy with my Blackberry, and I rarely use the photo camera. I started to follow this sector more carefully in the last 18 months, since we, at Expert System, realized that the quality provided by an effective natural language search engine like ours, in particular its precision or the capability to extract accurately only the relevant information, could stand out more on the screen of a mobile phone, than on the monitor of a computer. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that we are at a turning point in the market: with the opening of the wave of new application stores like Nokia’s and Microsoft’s, mirrored to Apple’s (thank you Steve), innovation will be boosted, and the control of operators will inevitably diminish.
During my three days in Barcelona, I spent a lot of time visiting the booths of companies, very often no more than start-ups developing new applications for mobile advertising. Like many others, I believe this market will increase dramatically in the next few years. Yet their success is not to be taken for granted and it will depend on their capability to effectively consider the most significant difference between a smartphone and a laptop. The relationship between a consumer and a smartphone is more intimate compared to the one with a laptop. I realize this fact very often, especially during my much-too-frequent business trips. While my laptop is switched off at some point, perhaps late at night, my BlackBerry is always there, next to me, and when the red light flashes, the temptation to check who’s writing, even right before going to sleep, is very strong. You could argue that this is actually an addiction problem. True, but as it is a common situation, understanding the effect of this sad personal condition is relevant to analyzing the critical factors for the success of mobile advertising:-)
When a user surfs the web on a computer, he or she is more disposed to accept and be reached by irrelevant ads. Obviously, in the next months also Internet advertising will have to move to systems able to improve their relevancy (see our Cogito Semantic Advertiser), to make advertising truly effective. Yet, the failure of the present systems in providing appropriate messages is more tolerable on computers than on smartphones. When using these devices, the user’s patience has a lower limit: the space on the screen is limited, therefore the presence of useless information is more irritating. In addition, as the device is more personal, the user is less disposed in general to be reached by irrelevant messages. However, this is also why the mobile phone can become the holy grail of direct marketing. But in order to become relevant and therefore successful, mobile advertising will have to correctly consider two variables. The first is the easiest to understand, and in fact it is already monopolizing the discussion on the subject: I’m talking about geographic reference. The second, more difficult, is the ability to profile effectively the user in any moment in time. Today this aspect is considered only in relation to the demographic data gathered by the operator. But demographic data alone are not enough: this second variable is crucial. For example, knowing that Simon is 45 years old, lives in London and earns 60K pounds per year is not enough to identify the kind of advertising information to be sent to him today. The dynamic aspects of the profile are far more relevant. For example as it is important to know that today Simon is in Berlin, it is also important (and maybe even more) to know that lately Simon is interested in modern furnishing, because he constantly accesses contents of this kind and often shares information on this subject. Semantic technology can be extremely useful especially for this second dimension of user profiling, because it can obtain relevant results in real time. And this is why I believe that semantics will surely be pervasive for on-line and mobile advertising in the future.
Another aspect of my attendance to the Barcelona event is that I’m returning to Italy with a Global Mobile Award in my suitcase. Cogito Answers won it for best technology for customer care. I believe this award, unexpected since we are new in the sector, proves that semantic technologies can also become extremely important in the development of a wide range of mobile applications. During my acceptance speech (I like to think I stole the audience away from Kevin Spacey, who was speaking in the next room), I highlighted how the semantic technology applications for customer care are only the tip of the iceberg of the value that this technology can offer to companies. In fact, I believe that semantics will be fundamental to enable the development of applications for smartphones. Semantics makes, in general, the access to information easier and more effective (from tourist guides and user’s manuals, to customers and sales prospects data, from inventory data to reviews of the latest U2 or James Morrison CDs.) Thus, it helps employees and customers to receive precisely only relevant information at the right moment, and above all, enables new ways of interaction between companies and customers.
The success at the Global Mobile Awards proves that Expert System is determined to play a relevant role in this upcoming revolution. It would be nice to fly back to GMA in a couple of years and see less grey suits. It would be a sign of things changing, just as the CEO of a start-up said to me: “Maybe the place will still be Barcelona, but with less grey suits, or maybe the men in grey suits will remain here, while those making real innovation will meet in some other beautiful town, coming from any side of the world.”
And, I would add… that people will no longer ask in which country a winning technology was developed: good technology can be developed everywhere, the “world is flat” now, as we all know.