CTIA: How disruptive are disruptive mobile technologies, anyway?

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SAN DIEGO--Billed as a spotlight on disruptive mobile technologies, Thursday's keynote here at CTIA Enterprise & Applications 2011 instead evolved into an exploration of whether the technologies in question are upsetting the apple cart or are, in fact, helping established industry players more quickly adapt to the new digital era.

All three of the startups participating in the panel discussion--mobile retail solutions provider shopkick, mobile payments enabler Jumio and VoIP services firm Tango--are working closely with the entrenched leaders in their respective verticals. "Having carriers as partners is essential to us," said Tango co-founder and CTO Eric Setton. "We're helping them sell higher-end devices and make the transition from 3G to 4G." Operators can in turn help emerging companies like Tango more effectively address their own obstacles, Setton said, citing billing expertise as a particular carrier strength.

"We're an industry enabler," said Jumio founder and CEO Daniel Mattes, whose firm leverages camera functionality in smartphones to scan, validate and process credit card transactions. "It's better to partner with other players. We work with credit card organizations. Either they fight [new technology] or they embrace it."

Shopkick co-founder/CEO Cyriac Roeding explained that his firm's solution--which rewards smartphone users who enter traditional brick-and-mortar stores, scan consumer goods and make purchases--is revamping a real-world retail model in danger of falling hopelessly behind digital commerce. "Retailers are under intense pressures from Internet companies," Roeding said. "The disruptive part is that we're going into a trillion-dollar industry and helping leverage the Internet to bring people into your store, not drive them out."

Moderator/New York Times deputy technology editor Quentin Hardy pointedly questioned when and how companies like Tango will begin to monetize their efforts. Twelve-month-old Tango offers free phone calls and video calls across devices running Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android, and it now touts 24 million users worldwide--Setton said the startup plans to introduce premium services by year's end, and while he declined to discuss specifics, he said Tango will not rely on advertising revenues.

"It takes a lot of balls to run a company based on users," Mattes said. "Your chances of building the next Facebook or Google are not that great. You have to think about monetizing from day one."

Roeding agreed. "If you start a new company, and you're faced with spending your entire energy on something you're trying to build, why not go for something with the potential to become a billion-dollar business?" he said. "The problem is identifying the right niche where a startup can win. There are few opportunities in mobile to build a large company. I've only identified two: One is the intersection of mobile and healthcare, and nobody has cracked it yet. The other is where mobile meets the physical world, which goes to the true nature of what mobile is about. It's the only interactive medium you carry with you into the physical world."

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