I was at a party the other night to celebrate the first anniversary of Nokia's "Ideas Project." The "Ideas Project" is an effort to bring together a diverse group of smart folks to share their thoughts on the evolution of media. The site has a bunch of interesting videos in which the likes of Esther Dyson, Robert Scoble, Loic Le Meur, Jerry Michalski, etc. share their big ideas. It is a really nicely curated site.
When Nokia started the Ideas Project just a year ago, it was not as blindingly obvious as it is today that the evolution of media is all about mobile (ok, maybe it was to Nokia). But, truth be told, venture capitalists have been predicting the domination of mobile and mobile applications for more than a decade now. And those of us who bet on the emergence of mobile in 2000 or 2003 or 2006 lost a lot of money.
So what has changed? A few short years ago, if you were pitching me on a mobile business, the most important slide was the one describing your startup's relationship with the carriers. If you weren't "on deck" -- meaning, your application wasn't pre-approved and pre-installed in the phone by the carrier -- you were nowhere. So carrier relationships were everything. And carrier relationships were hard. They took a long time to make happen. They cost a ton (carriers took the lion's share of the economics). And they were a huge dependency over which startups had very little control (and VCs hate that).
A second challenge for mobile startups of old was contending with the incredible variety of form factors and functionality. Startups trying to create location-based services couldn't count on a phone having GPS or Wifi or even a decent processor. Each phone had something different in it. Mobile gaming startups couldn't count on a phone having a big screen or high resolution. So mobile startups of old weren't developing a single version of an application. They were developing dozens of versions to suit dozens of screen sizes and processors and resolutions and chip sets and operating systems.
Enter the iPhone. As Apple did with music before it, Apple broke down the walls that existed in mobile. They opened up the "deck" and let application providers write straight to the device. That changed everything. A huge dependency was lifted and innovation really started to flourish. Sure, the devices also got a whole lot more powerful. There's a lot more that you can do with a smart phone than you could do with your standard device circa 2005. But processing power was never the problem. The problem was access to consumers. And that door has been swung wide open.
The operating system problem has also gotten a lot better. Developers can write to a small number of mobile operating systems and reach the vast majority of the market. Mobile application developers were almost giddy with the simplicity of writing only for iPhone. But we all knew that couldn't last. Now it is iPhone and Android. Tomorrow Windows Phone 7 Series and Symbian as well. But that is a far cry from the OS challenges of old. (Unfortunately, despite the greater simplicity on the OS side, I fear a recurrence of the form factor problem -- Android may be a little too democratic and is bringing back a thousand variations on a theme).
Given the power of the devices, the simplicity of developing for them, and the proliferation of amazing applications, it is not surprising that the mobile revolution is finally upon us. Up next is "write once, publish everywhere." It's great that you can now write a mobile app and get it distributed quickly and easily to a plethora of mobile commuting devices. But why do developers still need to write a version for Flash and Silverlight and FBML (Facebook) and Android and . . . ? Solve that problem, and we're really off to the races.
I was one of the first people Nokia interviewed for their "Ideas Project" website a year ago. And I didn't talk about mobile. I talked about social. Which is still clearly a huge piece of the future of the consumer Web. But it is hard (dare I say impossible) to build a social application these days without also including mobility. If a digital experience doesn't extend to your pocket, it isn't long for this world. As an extension of the "Ideas Project," Nokia has just launched a section on the "Big Questions" and I got a second bite at the apple. This time I think I got it right. This time my question is all about mobile -- specifically, what is the future of location based services (LBS) in mobile computing? Go check it out here and let me know what you think. You may even win a Nokia phone and you can test out your theories.
 Yes, I know that some of you out there are thinking that Apple's approval process is onerous enough that they have simply replaced one deck for the other -- now you need to get past Apple, not the carrier. Whatever you may think of Apple's approval process, there is no comparison. Just ask anyone who tried to get an application on a phone in the early 2000's.