It feels like the overarching theme in technology startups in 2012 was “mobile”, with mobile wisdom and sexy statistics echoing in the news, blogs and conferences. The discussion was marked with numerous milestones, such as the successes of Angry Birds, Instagram, Uber, Spotify, Hotel Tonight, and most recently, the proclamations of eBay and Etsy about how mobile has arrived in the holiday season. We have VCs that put “mobile” on investment strategy slides, and discussions by entrepreneurs about the challenges of mobile development. Thinkers like Fred Wilson are also weighing in with their experiences.
I personally find the discussion quite frustrating. It is not clear to me what mobile really is. It used to be a clear distinction: mobile was your phone and web was (accessed through) your computer. This has now changed. We have high-powered computers in our pockets, with improving form-factors (iPhones and most Android phones have large enough screens and pinch zooming) and innovative interfaces. Add to this the tablet, which, in my experience, really belongs on the coffee table at home and the senior executives briefcases in the office.
At the product level, there’s further confusion around apps and mobile web. To me, it feels like apps emerged due to the frustration around mobile data speed. We’d seen this on PCs before. The need goes away once the web is fast enough (just ask Salesforce.com). However, Apple and Google love to get in between us, and the tools we use, and are continuing to encourage the app world. I continue to believe native apps break the web and am counting the days until they go away. (This last point excludes the apps that are obviously native-appropriate, such as mobile games, and pure mobile needs like Moped, Wunderlist, Uber, Instagram, etc.)
It will be a good day when the whole noise around “mobile” starts to go away. To me, there are unmet needs and points of friction, and the current paradigm (that Meeker explains so well, especially with Slide 9, which is the reason for this post) with proliferation of diverse mobile devices, will inspire brilliant engineers to come up with products and services, that make use of these powerful devices all around us, irrespective of the form factor, that are connected to the sky with a fat pipe.
Through this process, some startups will have to focus on one type of device, and others, another. Lately, the challenge has grown for many startups because they feel compelled to parallel develop on and optimize their product for multiple device types. The ante at the table is now a great website, a great mobile site, and iOS and Android apps. In most markets, the competition is fierce enough that under investing in any of these may cost valuable early traction. If you have ever run a product team, you know how difficult it is to do this.
And, it is this challenge that will move us away from multiple development needs for different device types. Engineers will create frameworks that will simplify this task, and we’ll go back to simpler development models (remember X-browser optimization challenges. That’s history now).
To conclude, I think a lot of the current mobile discussion in startup-land these days is noise. We are just in transitional period with multi-device product paths. However, the core challenges around product–market fit are similar to what they have always been. If anything, the ways you can solve a problem today are more numerous, with the immense processing power we now have in our pockets and the fattening pipes to the sky.
It is a great time to be focusing on what problem you want to solve next, rather than “what your mobile strategy is”.