Where's Mobile's Killer App?

Thanks to location-based services, rich content and emerging standards, parts of the next must-have application may already be here. But some big surprises remain.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It always seems to come down to the killer app.

In personal computer lore, it was spreadsheets (VisiCalc on the Apple II and Lotus 1-2-3 on the IBM PC) that established the early desktop computers as an indispensable business tool. Desktop publishing helped the Macintosh get a foothold with professionals and Netscape's browser made the Internet accessible to millions of users for the first time.

The smartphone industry has had its share of hits already, including the phenomenal success of Research in Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry line for keeping business users securely connected to corporate e-mail and, more recently, the iPhone -- with its touchscreen interface and highly regarded mobile Web experience.

But smartphones, representing about 15 percent of the overall phone market by industry estimates, are a high-end niche. What kind of must-have application will it take to expand the market?

One hot area of discussion here this week at the Mobile Content & Marketing Expo is location-based services -- the idea that your mobile device will provide content, services and advertising based on your geographic location. (The Expo is owned by Jupitermedia, parent company of InternetNews.com).

Joe Laszlo, director of research at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an online ad industry association, has been a fan of location-based services but said the technology has been long on promise and short on delivery for years.

"I'm starting to think consumers don't want it," Laszlo said during a panel discussion here. "Maybe, in the U.S., there are location-aware applications, but not a 'killer app.'"

With built-in GPS and other technology in place, it's easy for applications and services to recognize your location and, for example, offer a coupon to a nearby store. But Laszlo said there are still privacy and control issues to be sorted out.

"I'm comfortable people knowing I'm in San Jose, but not that I'm in Conference Room B at the San Jose Marriott," he said. "There's a huge gray area of how consumers will control the granularity of their location."

But other experts here said the arrival of location-based services opens up new opportunities to developers and value to end users.

"I'm excited about location," said Matt Womar, a project leader with the World Wide Web Consortium, a non-profit, Web standards organization. "I want my preferences set on where I am in my house. I want to see things go far beyond what ZIP code I'm in for movie locations."

The iPhone and several other mobile devices already contain what Womar calls a ridiculous number of sensors that are leading to new applications. One example: "There are iPhone applications now that let you take you hold your wrist to the microphone and take your blood pressure," he said.

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