Mobile Monday Trip Report

Yesterday’s Mobile Monday meetup focused on mobile imaging, one of the most exciting topics in the mobile world. Below are my notes from the meeting (which was on the Yahoo! campus and had about 120 people).


For the uninitiated, Mobile Monday is a Silcon Valley institution, a monthly gathering of geeks and marketing types to showcase the latest and greatest in the wireless mobile device world. There are other mobile mondays as well: it’s become a worldwide phenomenon.
First up was Etick Wietzman from Shutterfly. He painted a rosy picture of a world with billions of network-connected cameras, and demoed some cool apps (including one that auto-uploads directly to shutterfly: check out www.sfly.com/web).
Then brought us back to reality. He painted a grim picture of the difficulties developing for the mobile platform. Specifically he mentioned the problem of Network / platform / handset combinations. This is the biggest one in my opinion: every demo on Monday worked only on a particular type of phone, on a particular network. This is very different from the world of PCs, where html/http provide a defacto standard that runs on all clients. Developing a mobile application that is usable by a majority of cell phone users is currently prohibitively expensive. But since most networked applications will only have value if they work on most phones, the potential of the entire space is not being realized.
Another major roadblock: the cellphone / carrier companies are downright hostile to developers, and have created a walled garden that stifles innovation. Users are often blocked from installing third-party apps on their phones, or accessing the content on their phones via Bluetooth.
What a downer! However, Etick wrapped up with an excellent demo of a couple of applications: a 1-click upload application (that uploads photos to shutterfly, of course) and a postcard-printing application.
Next up was Stuart Butterfield of Flickr/Yahoo! Stuart spoke at a more philosophical / strategic level about how what use use photography for is rapidly changing (from a way to document important events, to a way to share things that are going on in your life in real-time). He spoke eloquently of three trends:
1)The spread of cameras (camera phones overtaking digital camera sales in the US this year are a major factor here: pretty soon everyone will have a camera whether they want it or not)
2)The spread of the network (both wireless and wireline), and in particular the obvious untapped potential of network-enabled cameras.
3)The “de-geekification” of the internet (which makes people more comfortable doing more things online).
Chris Dury, from the mobile startup scanR, demoed their new product: a service for turning pictures taken with camera phones into pdfs / faxes / hardcopy. The service is targeted at the typical “road-warrier” business type (and probably priced accordingly). It doesn’t do text recognition, because image quality on camera phones isn’t good enough for that yet.
Chris also walked through the different options for transmitting data from a cell phone.
SMS: (high cost pre bit, huge variance in delivery time)
MMS: (more robust, 300k limit, still expensive)
Email: (provides poor or no recovery from network failure: not a viable option)
Premium SMS: SMS+micropayments. Supports shortcodes
Next up was Rich Gossweiler of PARC, with a demo of Plog, a photosharing application. A client on the phone sends the picture to the server (via MMS, so it costs ya!), and the photos get automatically organized by time/geography/subject to form narratives, which are published via RSS. Cool!
Finally , there was a presentation by Mobido, the new mobile image community application. We were all asked to take pictures of ourselves with our phones and send them (via MMS) to momo@mobido.com. That was where the trouble started for me! My Nokia 6230, an 150$ phone that I bought three months ago, only has the ability to send MMS to phone numbers, not to email-style addresses.
The general idea behind mobido is to allow the formation of ad-hoc anonymous communities arround mobile photo sharing. While the demo was something of a bust, the potential of the app was very clear. It was a great closer for the evening, because it showed the kind of applications that will be possible once all the problems surrounding mobile imaging (specifically, the inability to write a generic mobile app and spread it without the permission of the carriers or cell phone makers) get solved.
For now, I was left with the impression that mobile application development is a frustrating space, and the problems are business problems rather than technical problems, so it’s unclear when they will be solved. But I was also awakened to the amazing applications that will be possible once these limitations are overcome.