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Mobile real estate: old battles and new realities

This was Matthew Lynn, writing for Bloomberg, back in 2007:

The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. In terms of its impact on the industry, the iPhone is less relevant.


Apple will sell a few to its fans, but the iPhone won’t make a long-term mark on the industry.


It’s easy to look back at statements like these and laugh.

But the truth is, no one really expected the tsunami of change the iPhone brought to the mobile space. Only five years ago, smartphones were only carried by geeks, few knew what an “app” was, and for those of us in real estate, “mobile” remained little more than a buzzword.

In 2007, I may have had an inkling that it might be big but I certainly can’t claim any unique prescience:

House hunting seems to me to be an inherently mobile activity but as yet all of the house hunting options we have require you to root yourself in front of the computer. This strikes me as a pretty large disconnect, especially as the mapping/mashup technology already exists. Google Maps and Microsoft’s Live Search for mobile already make good use of it.

What I’d love to see is a mobile versions of Yahoo! Real Estate or Trulia‘s search engine. Something that would allow me to punch in my current location, search criteria and then have it return driving directions to each of the results to me. Maybe even a one-touch ‘click-to-call’ link to instantly connect me to the listing agent.

My wishes came true.

The battle is moving

Debates erupt around the display and syndication of listings online. Rumors abound about efforts by coalitions of brokers to build destination websites that will “compete” with the big portals. MLSes still argue whether they should be launching public facing websites.

Much energy is expended, but I’m pretty convinced it’s all being wasted. While many in the industry focus on websites and web pages, the future lies somewhere else.

Zillow now claims 40% of its weekend traffic comes through its mobile apps. I imagine the other portals see similar trends. There’s little doubt that those numbers will continue to climb to a point where the browser, I believe, will no longer be the primary way we connect to real estate data.

Five years from now the battle for audience in real estate won’t be fought on the web; it will be fought in the app stores.

It’s going to be messy, inasmuch as there are all kinds of form factors to account for. It’s going to be expensive, since there’s multiple platforms that will need to be supported. It’s also going to throw things like traditional SEO onto the back burner.

This reality should be top of mind for any broker or franchise thinking about its digital strategy, its syndication strategy, or its relationship with the online real estate players.

But this future is also going to be a ton of fun. New input methods — multitouch gestures, voice and who knows what else — will open up new ways for us to interact with all this information.

Either way, steel yourselves. It’s time to go all-in on mobile for home search. Get in, or get out – ’cause this is the world we’re heading towards.

Mark my words.

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26 Responses to “Mobile real estate: old battles and new realities”

  1. Brendan King says:

    Great post Joel. Long time no talk. I saw this post in my facebook stream and gave it a read. I think you are on the money with mobile but I think it is even bigger than that. I predict in 5 years your “smart phone” will be your work pc, your phone, your tv, your DVR, in short your everything. There will lots of different screens you will consume your media on – but will all come from your “smartphone” if that is indeed what it is still called. One other thing. I don’t think “apps” will win – probably HTML5 type websites (that act just like apps) but that is probably splitting hairs.

    Great post!

    • Joel Burslem says:

      Hey Brendan!

      I love HTML5 – we built Nudge in HTML5 – but I’m increasingly less bullish on mobile websites as a solution. I think consumers just love their “apps”. Love the simplicity of installing them.

      What I do think is going to be prevalent are cross-platform frameworks like Phonegap or Titanium that will use HTML5 to bridge platforms and then the iOS or Android apps are just delivery wrappers.

    • Jim Van Heule says:

      We too develop for HTML5. I disagree on the PhoneGap trend however. I loved the idea and embraced it, but as I see it mature, the bloat in the code is really killing its functionality. We moved on to avoiding all the javascript bloat and moved back to standard HTML5 and CSS using javascript where its needed to do all that cool stuff.

  2. David Harris says:

    Nice timing Joel. I was just about to get up and discuss the need for a national RE data standard that specifically addresses the needs of the mobile user (limited fieldset, geospatial parameters, realtime response) at the RESO conference at NAR. I will give your post a plug ;-)


    • Joel Burslem says:

      I would love to hear the results of that conversation David. I believe that’s a very pressing requirement in the industry.

      Thanks for the plug!

  3. James says:

    Good post, but app stores will be gone in years to come. html5 is taking over and Apple will have to relinquish their control model to keep people using the app store model. Keep in mind that mobile is still extremely new. In 3 years we have seen Apple which was close to extinction in the 90′s rise to be the largest company in the world in terms of value. It has yet to be seen if they can stay there, and new players entering now although not welcome in the states yet, are taking the rest of the world by storm. Un-coupling of the carriers and the device makers will make huge impacts in this industry for development and changes for the positive.

    • Joel Burslem says:

      I wouldn’t bet on the app stores disappearing (and, through the plural, I’m referring to Apple’s App Store, Amazon’s Appstore, Google Play, etc.) – there’s far too much money being made by developers and consumer are overwhelmingly voting with their wallets, that this is their preferred means of getting content.

    • James says:


      I would agree with you if stats backed that up. Out of all the smart phone users, only a fraction use apps more than once a day, and the ones they do use are generally maps etc… here are some stats for you in the future. I create mobile apps for enterprises, so seeing apps disappear is not something I want. However, the apps you mention are focused soley on games, not business users. http://mobithinking.com/mobile-marketing-tools/latest-mobile-stats

    • Joel Burslem says:

      Totally agree. But I guess what I’m saying is I’m not sure that the two things can be causally connected. People who don’t use apps on their smartphones aren’t more likely to use mobile websites – they’re probably just more likely to use their phones as “phones”.

      What I mean is they probably just got a smartphone as a replacement for their last flip phone, because that’s what their carrier is selling them today. As an aside, this trend likely explains the massive disparity between iOS and Android mobile web use too (the implication meaning that buyers who just need a new “phone” probably ended up with an Android device and don’t really use it to its full potential).

      For smartphone users – people who actually use their iPhone, Android or WP device – I believe native apps are still the way they want to go.

    • Jay Taylor says:

      It’s going to take several years before HTML 5 is widely deployed. I agree that it will have a big impact on how “apps” are developed and distributed but HTML 5 is not always the appropriate solution for the task at hand. Some apps will just run better locally than via a web connection.

      Furthermore, you are seeing every increasing b/w caps by carriers. If all apps were to move to HTML5/web connections, people would blow through caps, carrier b/w would become saturated and experiences would become unpleasant for many apps.

      I don’t think the app stores will go away completely…there is too much financial revenue on the line for the big boys. They will take steps to ensure the survival of the app store. However, I think you will see more and more web based apps coming to the market along side locally installed apps and in many cases, it will be hard to tell which one is web and which is local.

    • Jay Taylor says:

      I’m not talking about local storage, I am talking about code running locally on a device.

      Unless I am misunderstanding your point, it seems you are saying traditional apps (run locally) are going away to be replaced by web based apps.

      I think there will always be locally run apps because sometimes they are the right solution for the job. There are times when web based apps are the right solution and times when they are not.

    • James says:


      webapps can be stored and run locally on a device. There is no need for the app wrapper. The app wrapper helps with game styled apps. But even Facebook, Google and others use html5 with the wrapper for distribution. More specific objective c based apps or java based apps that use the devices built in calendar or functions need the app wrapper. All others can still access contacts, email, phone etc…. Offline storage includes the contents of the app itself. we have built many, some as simple as solitaire.

  4. Jim Bilbao says:

    The funniest thing about mobile apps was in early 2009 when my brokerage’s IT guy came to the office to explain the new security upgrade for all Windows users. I asked if he thought the NWMLS would ever embrace Mac OS. He said, “You should probably dump the Mac platform.” Didn’t see mobile browsing as Realtor relevant whatsoever, never mind tablets.

    Browsing is needed everywhere, so is SMS and email, by realtors and clients alike, sooner or later. That’s why mobile plus desktop is better than desktop alone. But phone screens are small for house pictures; Tablets are better. Typing on phones sucks; Voice recognition is better. Enterprises made sales force mobility, i.e. smart phones at least for email, imperative #1 starting 2004-2007. MLS and brokerages didn’t because, well, their sales force were all 1099 contractors. Mobility would have arrived in Real Estate 3-5 years fasater if Realtors were all 1040s, with full benefits. Indeed, 1/3 of US productivity growth over the last 15 years has been from the continuous replacement of manual activity with cheaper, faster software app-tivity. Mobile apps: explosion of replacements. Apple and Google just crushed the costs for developers to build and sell apps. So now we can buy them for $1 each, instead of $10,000 and save days or weeks of time annually from using them.

  5. Eric Estate says:

    Think: SOCIAL

    Apps are cool, but often offer too many features to be useful. Mark my words: Clients will spend hours pouring over the web (either on a desktop or sitting on their couch with an iPad) to find the perfect home, and then find an Agent to let them in the door. That agent will come as a recommendation from their friends on Facebook, Google+, or some other yet to be named social network.

  6. Jim Bilbao says:

    Eric, so you are saying the apps to find buyer agent services consumers find most useful are Facebook and Google+. I think you are right. And these aps will increase in importance to consumers of real estate services as consumer opinion continues to become a more reliable consumer measure of service quality than making inferrences from agents’ push marketing for public awareness about their services.

  7. Christian Sterner says:

    This post + the comments brought a few things back to the surface for me. I am even less bullish on the future of Google Play or the App Store. Google/Apple are too dependent on control of internet users and are trying to protect too many business angles to succeed long term with their app stores. To me, there is no better indicator of a business or industry that will be decimated than the amount of protectionism they engage in.

    While I see a huge angle in a sovereign distribution vehicle for mobile software, I don’t think apps win the day.

    There is a medium ground building that will own mobile – somewhere between a browser and an app but is not either… HTML5 is close, but relies on a browser.

  8. Lee Forbes says:

    My iPhone changed my life! I am glad to be a part of the progression to html5 for a more scale able web experience.

  9. Paulas@gmail.com says:

    My partner and i am searching to produce an iphone 4 application for my enterprise. We have researched all around but I continually look and feel as I don’t know what way to go.

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