If you’re bored about mobile in 2013, you’re not paying attention

Michael Arrington caused something of a stir this week when he complained that he’s a little bored with the state of the tech industry as we head into 2013. The blogger-cum-venture capitalist seems particularly down on the mobile segment, fretting that “a lot of the mobile stuff out there is just radioactive decay from the iPhone launching in 2007.”

I understand Arrington’s skeptical outlook: Apple’s devices and App Store have been the only big disruptive forces in almost a decade, and carriers still dominate the market with tired business models built on subsidized handsets, lengthy contracts and monthly voice and data plans. And as Arrington points out, the major players in mobile who aren’t carriers – namely Apple and Google – have been around for a while.

But I think there are some solid reasons to believe 2013 might be the most transformative year for the mobile industry since, well, 2007. Here are a few things I’m optimistic about heading into the new year:

  • Augmented reality. Like many mobile technologies, augmented reality (AR) has seen a lot of hype but precious little traction in the real world. That will begin to change in 2013, though, as developers effectively embrace AR in all kinds of mobile apps, from publishing to retail to games. We’re still years away from mass-market adoption of things like Google’s high-profile Project Glass, but AR promises to bring a valuable new component to many mobile apps this year.
  • NFC. I’m still unconvinced that near field communication (NFC) will play a key role in the emerging mobile payments market, but it holds tremendous promise for activities such as mobile marketing, ticketing and content-sharing (including, uh, adult videos, as depicted in this Samsung commercial). NFC-enabled handsets will finally come to market in a big way in 2013, giving developers plenty of incentive to leverage the technology in a wide variety of apps.
  • HTML5. As I wrote last month, Facebook’s well-documented struggles with HTML5 appear to have less to do with the technology itself than with the company’s inability to use it effectively. And HTML5 will enjoy a big boost in 2013 thanks to initiatives like Mozilla’s Firefox OS and Tizen, a new platform Samsung will likely begin to support this year. HTML5 may never be the write-once, run anywhere technological panacea developers have longed for, but it does promise to make it less costly for developers to address a broad mobile audience. And that will be great for consumers.
  • Disruptive business models.  I still believe U.S. carriers will continue to haul in messaging revenues for the foreseeable future because SMS is so universal and easy to use. But savvy consumers are increasingly turning to alternatives such as Apple’s iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to cut their monthly wireless bills. Meanwhile, a small army of new wireless service providers is experimenting with innovative strategies such as freemium offerings and heavy dependence on Wi-Fi connections. These newcomers face huge challenges in an ultra-competitive market, but they have a chance to disrupt the mobile industry this year.
  • The emergence of a third major OS. Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android have dominated mobile for years, but both operating systems have their vulnerabilities. That’s why I think we’ll see a third major platform begin to emerge in 2013. Microsoft’s Windows Phone is the most likely candidate to break out of the pack of also-rans, but Research In Motion has a chance to reclaim its lost relevance with the launch of BlackBerry 10. We could very well be talking about a three-horse race a year from now.

There are plenty of other reasons to be excited about what this year has in store for mobile as well: T-Mobile USA’s move to end handset subsidies might ripple through the industry, startups like Open Garden or initiatives such as Commotion could change the ways we access broadband through our mobile devices, and technological progress might make wireless spectrum much more efficient. It’s true that the mobile industry hasn’t seen any huge changes in the last few years. But it’s also true that 2013 might be the most eventful and disruptive year we’ve seen in a long time.