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An all-pervasive mobile computing platform has been the great hope of tech investors for the better part of the decade: a successor to the PC-and-server world, it would provide the foundation for the next generation of Googles or ebooks.
Now, as that promise starts to show signs of being fulfilled, the money is pouring in. In the US, the amount of venture capital investment in mobile more than doubled last year, hitting $7.8bn, according to CB Insights, which gathers start-up data. That represents 16 per cent of all the money invested by venture capitalists during the year.
Payment companies such as Square, delivery services such as Instacart, and mobile security providers including Lookout and social media apps such as Yik Yak are all part of a wave of mobile-first start-ups that have tapped into investor enthusiasm for businesses that are prepared for this paradigm.
“When the platform shifts, we get a new opportunity,” says Bill Gurley, a partner at venture capital firm Benchmark and a backer of Uber. The car-hailing service recently raised $1.2bn, one of the biggest fundraising rounds ever for a private company, giving it a valuation of $40bn. That makes it a powerful statement of the sort of opportunity Mr Gurley claims for the smartphone era.
“The mobile platform puts a processor just about everywhere,” says the Benchmark partner, who was speaking at a Goldman Sachs conference last month. “It’s what’s behind a company such as Uber.”
If smartphones have put processors into more than 1bn hands, then the next extension of the mobile platform — “wearables” such as smartwatches and glasses carrying sensory devices — could soon make them inescapable, adding to the revolution’s momentum.
It has been long expected that mobile businesses will take off, but it has taken some eye-catching valuations of companies to convince investors that big profits are finally up for grabs.
The emergence of Uber as Silicon Valley’s hottest start-up since Facebook, for instance, has caused an investment stampede into many other services that have modelled themselves on the ride-hailing company. Most style themselves as “on-demand services” — using mobile handsets to address a want and then supplying it by means of offline fulfilment.
Excluding Uber, companies that fit this description raised $1.46bn in venture capital in the 12 months to September 2014, CB Insights says. The rising tide of so-called “Uber for X” companies (because many style themselves “the Uber” of a particular industry) includes rival taxi app Lyft, as well as delivery services such as Postmates.
The conspicuous success of other early mobile leaders has also attracted investor interest to other promising categories. Facebook’s $22bn acquisition of WhatsApp last year, for instance, has confirmed chat apps as one of the hottest areas of mobile investment.
Last year, partly encouraged by Facebook’s acquisition, venture capital investors put $1.41bn into mobile messaging companies, CB Insights says: from Snapchat’s vanishing messages to Slack, a service for teams of workers with a heavy mobile component.
The investment boom is spreading well beyond mobile-first companies. Many whose histories date from well before the smartphone boom are also shifting their focus towards mobile and, in some cases, putting substantial investments behind their plans.
For instance, when Change.org, an online service for organising petitions, raised $25m late last year, much of its motivation was to extend its mobile reach. Already, half of all interactions with the service are on mobile devices.
“There has been a historic false divide between web and world, which is collapsing with mobile,” says Ben Rattray, Change.org’s chief executive. By adding a geolocation tag to its petitions, for instance, anyone with a mobile device would be able to see all of the Change.org campaigns taking place near them, potentially bringing much more publicity and support for local events.
“You can engage people where they are in the world or in real time,” says Mr Rattray — things that could add to both relevance and immediacy for a wide range of internet services.
How many of the companies staking out a place in the mobile world will produce a return for their investors is another matter. WhatsApp had barely scratched the surface in experimenting with ways of producing revenue before it was acquired; Facebook has since put the question off and shifted its focus to user growth. Few can afford that luxury.
Advertising, the main source of revenue for many desktop internet companies, is growing fast on mobiles, albeit from a low base. By the first half of 2014, it had reached $5.3bn, or 23 per cent of all US digital advertising, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.
Yet, with the most successful companies in mobile attracting sky-high valuations, it could take years for the business fundamentals — the elements that genuinely reflect the values of companies in the mobile industry — to catch up.