NEW YORK — Retracing a history of Apple computers — from its 1976 debut in personal computing with the Apple I, to its 2007 release of the iPhone — as he contemplated new technologies on the horizon, real estate tech exec Joshua Sharfman noted that innovation has a lot to do with sociology.

"It’s not about the technology alone. It’s about the changing behaviors of people who are consuming the technology," said Sharfman, chief technology officer for the California Association of Realtors, during a session at the Real Estate Connect conference in New York City, which began today.

"How are we interactive with the environment? It’s really about the attitude, it’s about the sociology," he said.

In 1993, Apple released the Newton, a handheld computing device that perhaps served as inspiration for modern mobile handheld Internet devices, Sharfman noted, adding that the increasing portability of technology will likely continue — 2010 may see a new round of innovation in keyboard-less tablet computers, for example.

"Think about how different things are today," he said, noting that he and his fellow panelists during the "What’s the Next Round of Online Real Estate Innovation?" session "showed up … without our computers" in favor of more compact mobile devices.

Laptop computers outsold desktop computers for the first time ever in 2009, he said. And he also pointed to the phenomenal growth of Twitter, an online messaging service — which has enjoyed particular popularity among users 39 to 51.

For the real estate industry, Sharfman said he expects a rise in user-generated ratings, rankings and commentary about particular properties or open houses, as examples.

Another panelist, Mark Lesswing, senior vice president and chief technology officer for the National Association of Realtors who leads NAR’s Center for Realtor Technology, said tablets "might overshadow netbooks" — netbooks are like downsized, Internet-ready laptop computers.

Manufacturers of e-book readers should watch closely the innovations in the tablet space, he said, which could prove fierce competition, though based on the history of tablet computers, the latest generation "might become just another fad or might stick."

Lesswing said it is interesting that there is potential for printed booklets of real estate listings — a predecessor to online real estate listings — to run full circle and to appear in e-book for consumers.

He also said he wouldn’t be surprised to see other manufacturers of new mobile phone devices to go the same route as Google with the Nexus One in allowing users to pick a carrier rather than tying them exclusively to a single carrier.

At another tech session Wednesday, Mike Mangino, president and founder of Elevated Rails, a software development company, discussed steps and barriers to producing mobile Web sites and applications. …CONTINUED

Producing an iPhone application that is sold in Apple’s App Store can cost $10,000 and more typically $50,000 to $100,000, Mangino said.

So the first question he poses to those considering whether to develop an iPhone application: "Are you sure this is something you really want to do?

"It’s really expensive to develop on the iPhone. It’s a hot market, and there are not a lot of people who have experience developing for the platform. Make sure you understand the cost involved," he said.

Customizing a Web site for mobile devices is an alternative to a full-blown app, he noted, and another alternative is to build a sort of hybrid app/mobile Web site to gain a presence in the App Store without requiring a heavy investment.

In any event, Mangino said that companies developing for mobile devices should prototype their product with a Web site. That way, it’s easier to test it with prospective users "and figure out what works and doesn’t work," he said.

Of course, he noted, Web sites have limits and don’t take advantage of all the features of mobile devices, such as the ability to record audio clips while touring a home, for example.

It’s also important not to aim too high in engineering new mobile tools: "Do the simplest thing that can possibly work," get it released as quickly as possible, and make sure to watch the user analytics to find out the most-used aspects of the tool.

Also, Apple seems to have accelerated the approval process for apps that follow its guidelines, and Mangino said it can take less than a day to win approval.

He noted that Tweetie 2 is a polished Twitter-related app for the iPhone that serves as a good model for developers.

On the online real estate listings front, expect to see more implementations of Virtual Office Web sites (VOWs) this year, said Chris Freeman, chief technology officer for WolfNet, a company that offers technology services for industry participants, including multiple listing services.

"I do think this is going to be the year of VOWs," he said as well as combinations of Internet Data Exchange (IDX) and VOW systems.


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