Over the years, there has been much hype and hope around the use of mobile phones in online real estate advertising. Some of the mobile innovations have been:
Suffice to say, none of these applications have taken the world by storm and, at best, have probably achieved a very small penetration amongst the early adopters in the market.
Now we are entering a new era of mobile applications - primarily driven by the iPhone, WiFi, and high speed 3G networks. Portal sites seems to be rushing updated mobile versions of their websites to market. Recently trulia.com and realtor.com in the US, and domain.com.au in Australia, have all released iPhone optimised versions of their websites in the hope of capturing more eyeballs.
They are now packed with features like location based services - they can work out where you are (via the GPS) and then show the homes that are for sale in the area where you are currently located.
However, the question still remains, is this a solution looking for a problem or is it truly a new way in which consumers will search for real estate?
First and foremost, we need to look at market itself. In the maturing markets (See previous article), consumers already have established a habit in which they will search for real estate - the PC. They often search at work and freely share the information with their friends and partners through emails. They will often communicate with the agents via email or phone and the printing out of search results is not uncommon. Therefore in these markets, at best, the mobile applications are likely to be an adjunct to the already established search experience.
Potential applications in these maturing markets will be reminder lists and Saturday morning open for inspection lists. In theory home hunters can select the homes that they want to search and then a route to visit all these homes is automatically generated (based on location and open for inspection times) and then the user just follows the route to the home. A sexy application, however most people move a short distance from where they already live and therefore are already likely to have a good idea of the locations of the homes they are looking at.
The other limitation of mobile based applications is the screen size of the phone. Now not all people use an iPhone. In fact Blackberry's, Nokia's and other makes are widely used and they don't have the same screen size as a iPhone - but they do have a usable keyboard (that is a whole different discussion).
Therefore the presentation of the most important part of the property search process, the home picture, is not a very exciting or usable experience.
Where i think that mobile real estate does have an application will be in the emerging countries (See previous article) where the populations have skipped a generation and are using mobile phones to access the Internet en masse for information.
The challenge here of course is that the markets are still maturing and the agents do not fully understand the value of the online marketing - therefore revenue streams from these markets for mobile applications are likely to be few and far between.
Overall, i think that mobile applications are a nice adjunct to existing online businesses however they are not a replacement and are unlikely to fundamentally change the way consumers search for real estate or interact with estate agents.