Mobile Gems At PhoCusWright 2010 ?

A few weeks ago, I’ve attended a very vibrant PhoCusWright conference. With over 1,000 attendees, an upbeat economical (compared to 2009), and a Tnooz “Appy Hour” reception on the first day, I expected mobile to be a key topic. Frankly I was very surprised when out of the  34 Companies presented at the Innovator Summit – only three were directly mobile-focused – less than 10%.  Maybe mobile is not that relevant? Or alternatively is it a business that for some reason has to be owned by incumbents? Well, on that last point, we got the answer on the last day of the conference, when Expedia’s focus on this space was demonstrated through its acquisition of Mobiata, and in the final executive interview with Priceline’s CEO Jeff Boyd, who stated that “If you look at the rapid proliferation of smartphones, tablet computers… that’s the most exciting thing to have happened on the Internet… and represents a unique opportunity for travel… there’s a huge opportunity to try and capture the value from the change in behavior that results from this technology…“ With these statements in mind, here’s my take on the alleged mobile innovators who presented at PhoCusWright – and some thoughts on where mobile travel is going. In expressing these opinions I am naturally biased – after all, I’ve been doing mobile travel for over 11 years now, and probably generated more revenue and users than all of these companies combined…

Movitas – “The New Guest Operating System”
Due disclosure – I am a big fan of Keith Forshew, their CEO. I think he’s a class act. Movitas essentially build property-specific mobile apps for resorts, hotels etc. Their perspective on this is that the mobile device is a great way for the property to communicate with the guest, and by providing a hotel-specific app that covers everything from check-in through communications between guests and staff and between guests themselves, access to everything from restaurant menus to amenities down to using the hotel switchboard to place calls routed from the smartphone.
I agree that hotels, and especially resorts with many services and amenities, would do well to offer their own mobile apps / websites. People are coming to expect that. But the assumption that a guest (and old dog) is willing to learn a “whole new operating system” (new tricks) every time he is visiting a new hotel is simply unfounded. Simply getting guests to download your mobile app is not trivial.  Getting them to learn how to use it to do twenty different things – including things for which they already have well-established mobile habits (e.g. telephony), is plain unreasonable. So if I’m a property-manager in need of a mobile-app, I may well look at Movitas as a vendor – they do have a good “template” to start from. But I will avoid much of the high-flying tech-for-tech-sake features they propose. Movitas will do well to take some of their ideas and try to ground them in existing mobile user habits – not build proprietary experiences (easier said than done).

Goby – The Local Mobile Search Engine
I have to say I like the area these guys are pursuing. Hotels / Cars / Flights were done time-and-time again, while no one has really cracked open the in-destination market, especially with regards to activities & services (A&S). I also think they’ve built a compelling mobile user experience, and they seem to have amassed a whole lot of content.
However, the challenges ahead are still significant. First & foremost, one of the biggest issues of the A&S market is the lack of an easy monetization infrastructure. Those dozens of thousands of disparate businesses, each with a different “booking model” do not tap into one system and are not all (or most) part of some wide-scale affiliate program, which makes monetizing the traffic (customers) you send to them extremely hard. In an adjacent space, OpenTable did that by building a significant sales-force on the ground and signing up restaurant after restaurant by offering them software they actually needed in order to lure them in – and ended up monetizing mostly through the subscription fees for that software. And restaurants are generally comparable which simplifies the software and the user experience. A museum and a white-water-rafting vendor – not so much.
The second challenge is again getting traction with users in the face of established habits. Google Maps and Yelp are slowly becoming platforms for solving the “what to do next and where” challenge for consumers in their home-town. These consumers may well prefer the brands and user experiences they know when they’re traveling too. TripAdvisor is already trying to chase Yelp, I wouldn’t be surprised if Goby is a target for them – at least in order to progress the user experience faster and present a more compelling consumer story.

Kony Solutions – Write Once, Run Anywhere?
Again for due disclosure – in 2001 I led the creation of a platform called X-Mobile, an XML-based, mobile, loosely-connected rich-client creation environment. It was deployed by Israel’s largest bank for banking application, and Israel’s largest dairy vendor for a supply-chain-management app. Heck I even wrote my MSc. thesis on the subject. So I am biased.

The challenge of developing multi-platform mobile apps is real. This is a market where not just the #1 but even the Top-3 platforms change every 3 years -

  • 2010: iPhone, Android, BlackBerry
  • 2007: Symbian S60, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile
  • 2004: Symbian S60, Windows Pocket PC, Symbian UIQ

Furthermore the different device form-factors themselves are varied – big screens, smaller screens, keyboard, no keyboard etc. If you’re a consumer-facing company, and you decide you need an app – you have a big dilemma. We discussed that at EyeForTravel and I followed up with a more detailed review. So I buy at least into most of the arguments in Stewart Elliot’s FUD campaign.

So – is Kony the solution? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. This is a hard problem to solve at its core. The differences between the platforms are supposedly the manufacturer’s “differentiators” – the reason someone prefers an iPhone 4 to a BlackBerry Torch or a Motorola Droid X to a Samsung Fascinate. They have a good reason to maintain the differences, so the common way to build a platform that “magically bridges them” is to dumb down the capabilities to the platforms to a lowest-common-denominator. This means many things that can be done in the “native” platform cannot be done in that “write once” platform. So do you need those things in your mobile travel app? If you do – Kony might not be good enough. If you don’t – they may be overkill anyway.

Furthermore, the “right way” to build such a tool is one where the platform owner (e.g. Google Android, Apple iOS) is the one incentivized to have that tool work well on the platform. Otherwise the tool will break every time there’s a new platform update or product. That usually means establishing a standard, and in this domain the relevant standard seems to be HTML 5. HTML 5 allows rich web apps to run in the browser on all these devices. Kony is aware of that and seems to be running a hybrid approach of HTML 5 screens running within a Kony “meta-client”.

So what Kony really is, from my perspective, is a consulting company with expertise in serving travel suppliers, and a “secret sauce” in the form of a proprietary framework to build these hybrid applications in. So as in Movitas’ case – if I’m a travel marketer looking for someone to build my next mobile app, I’ll definitely solicit a proposal from these people. If it’s a non-trivial app, it’s likely they will be able to expedite it to the market and the cost may even be competitive. But assuming they will displace standards, or give Adobe (for instance) a run for their money? Don’t bet on it. An if ultimately what you wish to built can and should be built as an HTML 5 mobile website, getting locked into their platform can be a big mistake in the long term.

So – what does this mean for the industry?
From the low attendance of mobile travel innovators and also from what these companies actually do, I get the feeling the zeitgeist is that mobile travel will be left in the hands of the incumbents. Whether it’s established travel players – e.g. Expedia (with some help from the Mobiata team) or potentially mobile players (Apple’s iTravel? Others are moving too) or most likely real platform players – like Google Maps. For all of these companies this is a high-stakes game, and they do seem to realize it. In the absence of disruptive upstarts, they’ll just keep trying and gradually improving their offerings in the space, until they hit a gold vein. At this stage I think Google has the most demonstrable ability to do it, and if no one else builds a better mouse-trap, Google Maps / Local Search will be the in-destination tool of choice for travelers. With 80% of purchasing decisions made in-destination (according to QuickMobile’s Patrick Payne), they stand to make a lot of new revenue there. And with the ITA and Google Places assets progressing, they stand to be the dominant player in mobile pre-trip planning too.

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