Commentary

Will Mobile Produce A Person Of The Year?

Steve-Jobs

Social networking has gotten its due from Time magazine, which this week named Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg its Person of the Year for 2010 -- and "You" POY in 2006, in connection with the explosion of new forms of self-expression online through blogs and sites like YouTube.

The Wall Street Journal's Digits blog points out that Zuckerberg's selection marks the fourth time in the last decade someone from the technology field overall has won the honor, including "You." The others were Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and Intel's Andy Grove. None of the three executives are directly tied to the mobile industry, though the companies they represent touch mobile in different ways -- the extension of Facebook to the mobile Web and Amazon's popularizing of the e-reader with the Kindle, for example.

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The technology figure conspicuously absent from that roster who has had the biggest impact on expanding the mobile landscape is Steve Jobs. In fact, the Apple founder and CEO was recognized as one of Time's "People Who Mattered" 2010. (Then again, so was Justin Bieber.) The entry on Jobs noted that Apple products "not only succeed in impressing the techiest of tech addicts, they also manage to create a whole new batch of gadget enthusiasts," citing the launch of the iPad in particular.

Time's Jobs item also pointed to the continuing growth of app sales via the iPhone and iPod touch, giving rise to a cultural phenomenon in the case of "Angry Birds." But if introducing the iPod, iPhone and iPad, and launching the app culture that poses a threat to the Web itself isn't enough to win POY, it doesn't look good for anyone else in the mobile world to have their faced framed with that signature red border.

It's hard to even speculate about potential candidates in the mobile sphere emerging virtually overnight like Zuckerberg, with an innovation that would ripple swiftly through the broader society like Facebook. That's because mobile has a more complex ecosystem than the traditional Web and is dominated more by large infrastructure companies and gatekeepers -- from wireless carriers to equipment makers and companies like Apple and Google. It's simply harder for a college kid to borrow a $1,000 to launch a Web start-up and watch it go viral via the network effect.

Even so, what mobile savant might have a shot at becoming Time's 2015 POY, when more people will connect to the Internet through mobile devices than on desktop PCs, according to Mary Meeker's much-publicized prediction from last year. (Maybe her nickname should be changed to "Queen of the Mobile Net.")

Fresh off Twitter's landing $200 million in additional funding this week, company co-founder Evan Williams comes to mind as a possibility, presuming the microblogging service can continue to grow rapidly and cross the 500 million-user barrier by then, as Facebook did this year.

But Williams had to step down as CEO this year, and Twitter itself isn't categorically a mobile company, though its 142-character message limit is based on text-messaging, and most Twitter activity happens on mobile devices. Perhaps more in that vein would be one of the social location start-ups like Foursquare, Gowalla or Loopt. Dennis Crowley as POY in five years? Notu if Foursquare gets wiped out by Facebook Places or Groupon.

Maybe it won't end up being any mobile entrepreneur or inventor at all. In 1983, Time ditched Person of the Year to name the computer "Machine of the Year." In the coming years, will we see a "Smartphone of the Year?" Or the Android logo gracing the cover of Time? That's probably more likely than the mobile equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg.

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