The Reality of Mobile Local

In 1996, one of our keynote speakers at a Kelsey conference was Greg Riker, who was vice president of technology at Microsoft and responsible for “wearable technologies.” A lot of what he did sounded like science fiction, but what he was testing has now become part of our daily lives.

In that vein, every year we conduct a session that we call The Next Wave Interview at ILM. Mike Liebhold, senior researcher at The Institute for the Future, was kind enough to take a break from a conference his organization was running on “Blended Realities,” or how our ordinary lives are becoming increasingly digital, to share some of his thoughts on the future. Liebhold has a biography that could easily fill two full columns in The New York Times. He has been a researcher at Intel Labs, developed large-scale IT services and IP networks for rural and remote regions of the world, been a senior consulting architect at Netscape, served as chief technology officer for Times Mirror publishing and a senior scientist for Apple Computer, essentially serving as John Scully’s right-hand man for technology.

The Institute for the Future is a 40-year-old not-for-profit organization spun off from the Rand Corp., and Liebhold’s job is to study the impact of communications on society. He helps enterprises think systematically about the future. “I don’t spend much time on what’s happening today; I tend to look out at what will be available in five years.”

In his discussion with conference organizer Peter Krasilovsky, Liebhold went on to say that we are becoming an urban planet — soon 50 percent of the population will live in a city. We are passing through a very important inflection or tipping point where phones aren’t just phones, they are computers. (During ILM, we heard several speakers say that the iPhone was a game-changer, and Michael Boland held a fascinating session on local iPhone demos.) Prices on smartphones are coming down … Liebhold said there are some subsidized smart mobile phones available for $79. As a result, he predicts “in five years, everyone will be able to afford a mobile computer.”

What is of equal importance is the opening of the mobile Web. Today the carriers still control the networks, but these “walled gardens” will fade fast. Liebhold is a strong proponent of open systems, and he believes it is just a matter of time before “our environments are going to talk to us.” He said that in most every talk he gives that kind of statement makes people nervous about privacy, but he cautioned that location tracking has to be done on an opt-in basis, and he believes that people will opt in. An important element of this is geoRSS. This is a grass-roots development of location-based data that most major companies have adopted as a standard to make sure it works across the board.

It appears that Riker’s wearable technology is fast upon us and Liebhold underscored the theme of Interactive Local Media 2008: Extending Local Channels.

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