Wireless in Waikiki

First published April 3, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Having just dragged my butt off a beach in Hawaii, my mind has not fully settled itself back in the search groove. But I did come to a realization in between snorkeling (highly recommended) and hiking the Na Pali coast in Kauai (even more highly recommended). Mobile is going to change our lives in amazing ways.

I’ve visited this topic  before, but this time, in addition to my beautiful wife and two charming daughter, I traveled with a new companion, a brand new HTC TyTN II with an unlimited data plan. While this may sound “ho-hum” to you Americans, unlimited data is an impossible dream here in Canada. Our mobile providers are still holding us hostage for daring to check emails while on the road. It’s a sad state of affairs for an otherwise civilized country.

All Wired Up And No Place To Go

The combination of 3G speeds, a relatively powerful device and the elimination of worry about a roaming data bill spinning upwards faster than gas prices proved to be a heady and intoxicating combination for me. Unfortunately, I found that although (metaphorically) I was all dressed up, there were still precious few places to go. A couple of times I found myself saying, “surely there must be a WAP site for that” only to find myself trying to negotiate non-mobile-friendly interfaces in a horribly glitchy browser. While the potential was so intoxicating, the reality fell far short.

This was a topic I touched on briefly in my opening remarks at the last Search Insider Summit. Mobile is the place where discontinuous innovation is most likely. There must have been a dozen times over the last two weeks where I said, “it would be so great if someone could…” and completed the sentence with something that seemed so obvious to me yet apparently was unavailable at this time.

So Much Potential, So Little Functionality

Now, much as I’d like to say that it’s my incredible vision that brought all these great possibilities to light, I suspect these are not undiscovered ideas. I’m sure that many companies are sitting on them, just waiting for the right convergence of device horsepower, input and output performance enhancements, bandwidth and standardization to roll these mobile killer apps out. Once some of the current bottlenecks are solved, or at least relaxed, I believe there will be a rush of mobile innovation that’s been sitting on a shelf, biding its time.

Here’s just one example. While on Kauai, I started dreaming of actually owning property there. I indulge in this little fantasy (the huge gap between my income and Kauai property prices unquestionably defines this as a fantasy) ever year. So I did a little searching on Zillow.com just to see how out of reach my dreams were. Now, on the laptop, Zillow is a rich information resource for real estate shoppers. But when you go mobile, its functionality is limited to texting an address to Zillow, and it sending back the current market price of the property as a return text message. While intriguing, this falls far short of Zillow’s total online experience. How amazing would it be to drive through neighborhoods, GPS-enabled PDA or smartphone in hand, and have maps instantly updated with available properties and details. You can almost hear the words coming out of my mouth: “It would be so great if…” Well, you get the idea.

Google: A Map In The Right Direction

I used Google Maps on the mobile a lot while I was away, and I have to admit, I’m pretty impressed with the functionality that has been squeezed into this little app. But we’re barely scratching the surface of what’s possible. Using it to look for a good Mexican restaurant while hiding out from a downpour in Waikiki was an experience that would have driven a lesser man to tears. It’s not really Google’s fault, it’s the lack of online, mobile-friendly presence on the part of almost every business on the planet. Yes, I’ve heard all the market rationalizations about early adoption, critical mass of markets, bandwidth required to mobilize local advertisers…yadda, yadda, yadda. But dammit, the potential is just so tantalizing!

So, my expectations of mobile nirvana fell a little flat, but you’ll be happy to hear I made a full recovery after intensive and repeated beach and Mai Tai therapy.


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