Nov 182009

Yesterday evening, I attended an MIT Enterprise Forum session on Marketing & Adoption Challenges, featuring presentations from the following:

  • Seth Priebatsch (CEO, SCVNGR). SCVNGR is a super cool, turnkey hyper-local mobile gaming platform with a high level of cross-device and OS portability.
  • Chuck Goldman (CEO, Apperian). Apperian is a Boston-based iPhone app development shop founded by former Apple execs.
  • Jaime Thompson (President, Pongr). Pongr is a service that connects users with brands when they snap a picture with their mobile camera and share with friends via social networks. Pongr’s differentiators include proprietary image recognition technology and cross-carrier MMS interoperability.
  • Jack Kelly (CEO, Adva Mobile). Adva Mobile is an app that enables music artists to engage fans on their mobile phones.

As you’d expect, during the panel discussion that ensued following the presentations, the challenge of discoverability was the most prominent theme. As folks in the industry well know, OS/platform fragmentation and incompatibility issues create a ceiling on viral sharing. Case in point – despite the aura and popularity of the iPhone, 93% of smartphone users don’t have one* and cannot download and use apps in the iTunes store. So while word of mouth can be potent, fueled by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media channels, you cannot simply refer an app to all of your friends.

*Note: This figure excludes iPod Touch handsets

One obvious solution would be some standardization agreed upon by the device manufacturers (a la the Blu-ray for high definition DVD), but we all know that isn’t going to happen given Apple’s obsession with control and closed software environment. And therein lies an opportunity…for Google.

Thanks to a media blitz, largely funded by Verizon Wireless (it finally has a venerable contender to the iPhone), the Motorola Droid will be the impetus to take Google’s mobile platform, Android, mainstream. While Google’s open platform strategy is the antithesis to Apple’s, like Apple it promises seamless integration with its software and tools, including Gmail, Google docs and the Google chrome browser. The next logical question: what about Search?

Imagine you do a web search for “Flight Delays Kennedy Airport” (maybe the query should be “Flights not delayed to/from Kennedy”), wouldn’t it be useful if in addition to a list of notoriously problematic flights and current delays, there was a list of mobile apps that offer flight delay notifications? In this particular case, TripIt, WorldMate, FlightTrack, TripCase, TripChill, etc. might appear. As Chuck Goldman points out, Google would have access only to apps created for Android and not to those in iTunes or other “closed” app stores where the meta data associated with the downloads isn’t accessible. And Google, much like iPhone, will take time to penetrate the market and capture meaningful share. That said, unless Apple wants to cede this competitive advantage indefinitely, it is in its best interest to lift the walls around iTunes and allow web bots to crawl and index its pages.

What do you think? Will Google’s approach with Android be the catalyst to solve discoverability for mobile app pure plays? If so, is there any hope for virality? Please share any comments and ideas you have.