New mobile-phone applications tailored for real estate are moving beyond for-sale property searches and into areas once reserved for personal computers, such as lead generation and management, market research and analysis, and customer relationship management.

As is often the case in the fast-moving world of technology, yesterday’s dazzling breakthrough — the ability to access listings on the go using a mobile phone — is becoming the norm. Now consumers and real estate professionals are demanding more.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on how advances in mobile-phone applications tailored for real estate are changing the way consumers and real estate professionals conduct home searches and transactions. Part 1 looks at how Apple’s iPhone has revolutionized mobile phone applications by harnessing the power of independent developers. Part 2 explores smart-phone adoption by consumers and real estate professionals, and how the industry is putting the iPhone, other smart phones, and older technology to use.

New mobile-phone applications tailored for real estate are moving beyond for-sale property searches and into areas once reserved for personal computers, such as lead generation and management, market research and analysis, and customer relationship management.

As is often the case in the fast-moving world of technology, yesterday’s dazzling breakthrough — the ability to access listings on the go using a mobile phone — is becoming the norm. Now consumers and real estate professionals are demanding more.

Drive through any neighborhood, and many mobile phones can or will soon be able to one-up the personal computer by detecting the user’s location, revealing nearby open houses and homes for sale, and providing turn-by-turn spoken directions to any of them.

Consumers will routinely use mobile phones to pull up detailed information on listings and market data including recent price reductions, sales and price trends for the area. They’ll also use their phones to access other relevant information, like crime statistics and the location and performance of nearby schools.

Real estate professionals are receiving instant notifications on their mobile phones when prospective clients want more information about one of their listings — or a competitor’s. Many brokers and agents can respond from wherever they happen to be at the moment with detailed, branded, information on the property in question and others that might fit the bill.

Once a listing or sales contract has been signed, agents and their clients are using their mobile phones to manage the complex process of marketing and selling a home.

Those capabilities and more are available, in varying degrees, today — although not in all markets or on any single application.

The catalyst for the revolution in mobile applications custom-designed for real estate are "smart phones" capable not only of receiving e-mail and surfing the Internet, but downloading software designed for specific uses.

In the same way that the most powerful desktop computer is only as useful as the software applications installed on its hard drive or accessible over the Internet, smart phones have upgradeable operating systems and can be loaded with custom-built applications, allowing users to harness the efforts of third-party software developers who strive to meet their every need.

Many obstacles still stand in the way of realizing the full potential of mobile phones in real estate, including the hundreds of incompatible mobile phone platforms and operating systems, gaps in mobile phone carriers’ data networks, and access restrictions to listings and other property information.

But the mobile phone has clearly become more than just a tool for surfing Web-based listings. …CONTINUED

The iPhone revolution

Credit for turning the mobile phone into a device rivaling the personal computer — and in some ways surpassing it — often goes to Apple’s iPhone.

The iPhone wasn’t the first to incorporate the technology that’s made the mobile phone such a versatile tool, such as 3G wireless data networking and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite location tracking.

But the iPhone gets props because it’s raised people’s expectations of what a mobile phone can do — in part because Apple has enabled third-party developers to create custom applications and sell them through the iPhone App store.

"Forget that it’s a really cool device, or the touch screen — what it really changed is people realized they could do all these things with their phones," said Eric Blumberg, co-founder and president of Philadelphia-based mobile real estate application developer Smarter Agent.

Smarter Agent offers downloadable mobile real estate applications tailor-made for more than 100 different cell phone models. The applications include Homes For Sale, which uses a patented technology to allow users of GPS-enabled phones to see the 10 homes for sale nearest their current location.

The company currently boasts more than 100,000 users, which it says are divided roughly equally between iPhone, Blackberry and standard mobile phones users.

Since the iPhone’s debut in the summer of 2007, Blumberg said, "we’ve seen double-digit increases in downloads (of mobile applications) across all the phones" that Smarter Agent supports.

Looking at the global market share held by the major smart phone operating systems, the iPhone is still a niche player.

Symbian OS (used in many Nokia, LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson handsets), Research In Motion (RIM) Inc.’s BlackBerry and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile were all maintaining a bigger piece of the global pie than Apple in the last three months of 2008, according to information technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc.

Google’s open-source smart-phone operating system, Android, has generated a buzz since its release in October, and Palm has a new Linux-based operating system, webOS that "might be interesting" because its development team started from scratch, said Errol Samuelson, president of Move Inc. subsidiaries Top Producer Systems and Realtor.com. …CONTINUED

Samuelson, a self-described "smart-phone aficionado," sees the BlackBerry and iPhone operating systems as likely to attract the most interest from real estate application developers down the road.

The BlackBerry’s full QWERTY (standard lettering layout) keyboard makes it the preferred choice for many agents who are heavy e-mail users. While the new BlackBerry Storm has a large touch screen like the iPhone’s, Apple’s 3G phone is still seen by many as the top choice for Web browsing.

Samuelson said he’s got several friends who have both — a BlackBerry for heavy e-mail and an iPhone for Web surfing.

Apple’s edge: the App Store

Nevertheless, Samuelson thinks the iPhone operating system "could end up winning the whole thing," because Apple has a first mover advantage in enabling third-party developers to design their own applications for the device and market them through the iPhone App Store.

The more software is available, the more widely adopted a platform becomes, which increases the incentives for developers to create even more software. It’s a "virtuous cycle" not unlike the one that helped the IBM PC and clones running Microsoft operating systems overtake Apple when personal computing took off in the 1980s, Samuelson said.

While BlackBerry’s maker, Research in Motion, and others are launching their own application stores, "sometimes that first-mover advantage can’t be overcome," Samuelson said.

Software developers, who set pricing and keep 70 percent of revenue generated by sales of their apps at the iPhone App Store, have made more than 25,000 iPhone and iPod touch applications available on the site. Consumers have flocked to the site, with customers downloading more than 500 million applications from the App Store. Developers can price the applications for as little as 99 cents or give them away.

Those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, said David Geipel, co-founder and chief operating officer of QWASI Inc. Many smart-phone applications are games or novelties, downloaded on a whim and used once or twice, if at all, he said.

"How many consumers know what they have on their phone?" Geipel said. "My BlackBerry has a lot of stuff I downloaded that never got any usage."

Although QWASI develops iPhone applications for clients in a number of fields, it continues to support phones with more limited WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) Web browsers, and text capabilities like SMS (short message service) and MMS (multimedia messaging service).

Users don’t have to download an application to use QWASI’s mobile real estate tool, Mobile Agent. Instead, they send a text message to Mobile Agent with an address, neighborhood or street name to get property details including address, price and photos.

Smart phones are "where the consumer is going to be," Geipel acknowledges. But for now, real estate brokers need to provide better access to data "in a low-hanging manner" — through all existing technologies.

According to Gartner, smart phones accounted for only 12 percent of mobile device sales worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2008. But smart phone sales grew by 69 percent in North America last year, and accounted for one out of five mobile devices sold.

Meanwhile, 42 percent of brokers, agents and real estate managers were already using a smart phone with wireless e-mail and Internet capabilities back in 2007, according to the most recent technology survey by the National Association of Realtors.

While Apple is on a roll, the company acknowledges that its strategy to control the distribution of iPhone applications through a single distribution point could backfire. Unauthorized services like Cydia Store and Rock Your Phone offer iPhone apps outside the official channel, but users often have to hack their phones to download them, voiding their warranty and violating copyright law, Apple maintains.

In its last quarterly report to investors, Apple acknowledged that "the absence of multiple distribution channels, which are available for competing platforms, may limit the availability and acceptance of third-party applications," leading developers to "curtail significantly, or stop, development for the company’s platforms." …CONTINUED

But that kind of cautionary language is often found in regulatory filings. On March 17, when Apple announced details of the new mobile phone operating system it plans to roll out this summer, iPhone OS 3.0, developers of mobile real estate applications were rushing to download a software development kit, or SDK.

iPhone OS 3.0

"We’re downloading the new SDK as I type this," Jim Secord, president of Most Home Real Estate Services, said in an e-mail on the day the kit was released.

Most Home’s Kurio application provides real-time access to multiple listing service (MLS) data from any Web-enabled mobile phone, serving more than 30 major MLSs with upwards of 300,000 Realtors.

Secord said he was excited about the new iPhone operating system’s potential real estate applications.

Among the new tricks for iPhones running OS 3.0 will be the ability for users to purchase content or services from within a mobile application through the iPhone App store. That’s crucial for companies that provide subscription-based services like access to full MLS data, Secord said.

A new map kit that works with the Google Mobile Maps Service will allow direct support for geocoding and markers within Kurio and other iPhone applications, Secord said, and allow applications to provide turn-by-turn directions like a dash-mounted GPS navigation system.

Voice support will allow iPhone users to chat with Kurio’s support staff without dialing a number or leaving the application, Secord said. The ability to communicate with other Bluetooth-enabled hardware devices should prove to be a boon to real estate agents, since all new GE lockboxes use the wireless communication protocol, he said.

A streaming video application programming interface will allow iPhone users to see virtual tours of listings, he said, and a new "push notification" service will allow Most Home and other developers to send property updates, lead notifications and Realtor invites.

"I’m very excited about the possibilities here," Secord said in an e-mail to Most Home employees. "I believe an iPhone application could rival desktop MLS systems in terms of usability and access to data."

Samuelson was equally enthused about iPhone’s new operating system and the prospects for an explosion in smart-phone applications for real estate in general. He said the iPhone’s ability to collect subscription fees through mobile phone applications is "one more reason for that ecosystem to explode."

"I think this is the next big thing, and that you’re going to see more innovation in mobile in the next two years than in other areas, even with this economy," Samuelson said. "It’s not just me — everyone says there will be a crossover point, maybe in the next five to 10 years, where more people are accessing the Internet on a phone than sitting in front of a computer."

Next: While consumers have been slower to embrace smart phones than Realtors, many in the industry are putting the iPhone, other smart phones and older mobile technologies to good use (click here for Part 2).

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