The lists of best apps and mobile campaigns are pouring out in these final weeks of the year. Mediapost's own Appy Awards 2011 is accepting nominations now and will be announced in San Francisco on Feb. 28.
For my part, I have been in this mobile game too long to be much impressed by the shiny objects. I prefer the long-haul perspective that recognizes this is a medium of experimentation and iteration. I am more interested in watching how some brands and mobile categories have advanced in this year of rapid mobile growth. If digital media allows iteration, then we should highlight and celebrate those who learned fast and evolved. So without further ado and without unctuous presenter banter, here are the mobile things that caught my eye simply because they were moving quickly and they were not always appreciated elsewhere.
Retail: This category got mobile religion this year, but the brands that already determined to get mobile right also advanced farthest, fastest. Best Buy added scan codes to all of its store shelves, but paid off users by integrating the scans with a superb product comparison engine in the BB iPhone app. Steve Madden really gets the mobile Web right by demonstrating people can do real shopping here. In addition to planting many ways to pull a customer into that all-important CRM loop, the site simply presents product beautifully at a dot-m site that plays well on most phones. There is not an app involved at all, and yet the brand (along with Best Buy) is setting the pace for mobile retailing.
The Other Search Engines: Why hasn't there been more notice that the also-rans in mobile search have upped their game to carve out unique takes on mobile information-gathering? Both the Bing app and mobile Web site are excellent extensions of the evolving identity for this Microsoft engine. The localized results on searches are exemplary, as is the integrated mapping and icon-driven interface. Bing counters the minimalist Google experience with visual appeal on every page. Likewise, Yahoo's updated portal home page works brilliantly on smart phones -- and its compressed, customizable overview of personal communications and information makes a good case for the revival of the portal concept on mobile.
Where: I have been generally underwhelmed by location-based services on mobile despite all the hype. I still find foursquare of limited use unless I am in a very well-populated area. Yelp has always been a more helpful app in my travels and around the home, but it hasn't changed much. I like the evolution of the Where app, which is doing a better job than most of aggregating data from multiple suppliers and ad networks to deliver a more rounded LBS experience. Coupons are integrated into the local search and recommendation app now, as are local events, etc. Like Yahoo's new portal, Where is starting to think in terms of a full-featured local app that feels more like a familiar weekender free newspaper than it does just another dweeby search algorithm or silly check-in tool.
Games Get In Touch: The real transformation in mobile gaming that has helped it take off this year is developers' embrace of the touch interface. Games like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Helsing's Fire and now the amazing Infinity Blade are all exciting game concepts because of the kinetic connection. The Wii and DS uncovered this important element in gaming, but touch really brings it home and heightens involvement. Mobile developers have done something that video console developers and even PC casual game developers sometimes struggle with: making accessible designs that are simple in structure and challenging as you get engaged. Infinity Blade, a hack and slash fighter using the new Unreal engine for iOS, literally translates finger swipes into swordplay on a level of visual detail that makes the player feel as if he is playing directly with an HD scene. With Sony reportedly planning a PSP2 and Nintendo a 3D version of the DS for 2011, the incumbent handheld gaming players will have to make a strong case for their standalone portable gaming platform to survive.
Print: We have been calling newspapers and magazines deaf to the mobile call for so long now that it is easy to miss that they are evolving quickly, especially on the iPad. Only nine months ago, facsimile magazines were as far as the periodical industry could imagine on this platform. But now we have some very compelling iPad-only iterations of cookie recipes from Martha Stewart and an underappreciated revival of the Life brand in its own tablet app. Even the magazine issue apps have gotten better, especially Esquire, SI and People. On the newspaper side, USA Today continues to be a great example of print making the touch transition, with one of the best uses of the interface for news perusal. Even the New York Times, which started on the tablet with the anemic Editor's Choice edition, has upped its game with a new release that gets closer to the mark.
But what are your candidates for "most improved" segments or brands in the mobile sphere this year? Who are the fast learners who listened to users, measured and understood use cases, and moved the art of mobile media and marketing forward?