This past Monday, I attended a Mobile Start-Up showcase at the MIT Museum, which featured some thirty exhibitors. I thought I would use this Lens to offer a few big picture observations about what an event like this tells us about the state of the market. Hats off to the Mobile Monday Boston and MIT Mobile Club teams who put together a great event.
An initial macro observation is that the event helped me realize how significantly the wireless world has changed in four years. While there were a few established businesses demonstrating (ie. they have some funding and some staff), the vast majority were shops of fewer than 10, not necessarily a full time gig, self- or angel- funded, and led by people in their 20s. What was amazing that nearly all had apps/platforms/solutions that you could use today. There was even interactive iPhone app that served as a guide to the evening, no doubt pulled together between finals with a few shots of Red Bull to keep the team going. The barriers to entry to join the wireless party are near nil. Getting noticed, finding development talent, and building a business (if that's what the objective is) - that's where the challenges are.
Second, I'd say this was a terrific showcase of some of the latest application development tools. About one-quarter of the exhibitors were in the app development/content creation/content management space. Some were focused on offering platforms that just about anyone could use to quickly and fairly easily develop and deploy an application or create a mobile web site. I call this "Wordpress Applied to Mobile". We're also seeing the emergence of app development "specialty shops". For example DoInk Animation and Drawing provides drawing and animation tools for the iPad. Tap 'N Tap is focused on the UI for Android tablets. Unbound Commerce is focused on building commerce sites for retailers, another is targeting university sites, and TourSphere is about museums and cities.
A second observation is that this was 90% iOS and Android focused. There was nary a mention of Windows OS, Web OS, or Blackberry/QNX. There wasn't a Playbook to be found. I'd also say that there was a pretty big emphasis on tablets. I am impressed at how good some of the Android tablets are. They surpass the iPad in some respects - but the power of the iTunes distribution system continues to be the elephant in the room.
Third, I don't think the words "Wireless Operator", AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc. were mentioned once the entire evening, in any conversation I had. Here was an event featuring thirty companies, attended by about 300 people, in the heart of start-up land East. Quite a number of execs from different corners of the mobile landscape attended, as well as some prominent VCs...but very little operator representation. Not that they're the determinants any longer of what shows up on a device, but one would figure there'd be some BD/Open Development team/Innovation Center people at an event like this just to see what's hot. Hmmm...
Fourth, true to the "Mobile-Social-Local" heat of the moment, there were several start-ups demonstrating apps or platforms in the area of social networking, chat and communities. Most of these draft off Facebook or Twitter: share experiences with or knowing what's new with friends/family; improving the "mobile experience" of those sites; or homologating contacts or discussions from multiple sites into a consolidated view. There were also several demonstrations of using location to add value to existing apps - to discover friends, connect nearby fellow college alumni, discover local events, or find parking.
Fifth, this was 90+% consumer focused, whether it was the development tools or the target of the applications being demonstrated. I was a bit surprised, since there's so much activity now going on in the enterprise space. This led to a realization: most of the work in the enterprise mobile space is being done by grown-ups, who have worked at a company, hence know about the machinations of the enterprise. Also, unless it's a really "consumer-y" app in the enterprise, most platforms/apps have to work within some legacy environment or connect to some back-end enterprise functions. This is why more established companies such as Antenna, Apperian, Sybase, Cyclo, and Pyxis Mobile are getting good traction.
Finally, there was deep concern among many I talked to about a looming shortage of mobile development and UI talent. People are jumping into this party from many different corners. But there are few formal training programs, and there's going to be an entirely new generation of opportunities for people who can develop and optimize for the nascent "touch and swipe" world.
All that said, a few "bests" - with the caveat that I didn't see every company and most of this is based on a quick demo and/or conversation:
Development Platform: BlueTrain Mobile. Content management system that enables companies to build mobile websites (a bet on mobile web, not app).
Content Creation. DoInk. Gorgeous drawing and animation tools for the iPad.
Commerce. KangoGift. Send gift vouchers to friends' cell phones.
Games. Tap Lab. Cool multiplayer city-building game.
Innovative Use of Mobile Device. Brass Monkey. Allows mobile device to be a "game controller" via an SDK for connecting devices together over a WiFi network.
I'm Rooting for Them: Socrative. Educational games/exercises on mobile devices. At this point too reliant on students having smartphones or iPod Touches, but getting interactive technology into classrooms is a pet issue of mine.