Real estate technology is headed straight to the small screen

The announcement of the iPhone 3G S this week adds confidence to my belief that real estate websites as we know them are a legacy platform.

The handheld device will be the locus of real estate technology innovation in the coming years.

The inherent “limitations” of the small screen are in fact liberating for the people who count: End users. These are the folks too often forced to slog through a chopped salad of links, footers and gratuitous content served up by SEO-obsessed product teams. The small screen concentrates the developer mind and compels a better experience.

And, for now, the mobile platform is relatively free from ads. This is changing fast, but even when mobile advertising matures it is likely to be less disruptive than what users have come to expect on the big screen. Early data suggest they may even be more effective.

Most importantly, the experience is portable, which is perfectly suited to real estate.

This is why I think the Zillow iPhone app is better than It’s why I am so excited about the numerous IDX-based native iPhone apps in development as I type.

But you may ask: “What about virtual tours, or big hi-res photos – won’t the small screen limit my ability to merchandize listings?”

Here’s a secret: Price a listing right. Take a dozen well-composed photos. Put it in the MLS. It will sell. No need to go nuts with Photosynth or lay down a John Tesh track behind your slideshow.

The small screen is enough screen.

The details

Consider these features of the 3G S:

1.    Location awareness in the Safari browser. This means you don’t even have to be using an iPhone app to have content – perhaps listings – served up to you based on your location. Right now, many real estate sites serve you listings based on your IP address, which is a notoriously imprecise way of determining location. A location aware browser improves location targeting dramatically.

2.    Video capture, editing and publishing. A year ago, everyone was raving about Flip cameras. Trouble was they kinda sucked. And they were yet another device that needed to be schlepped around, then plugged in to some other web-connected device for publishing. Now, users can take hi-quality video, edit it and email or text it with the click of a button. Or the video can be sent to YouTube directly from the device. Forget for a moment how this might be used by Realtors; think about how buyers will be able to document and share their home search.

3.    Speed. Mobile browsing – even on “high-speed” 3G networks — is still relatively slow. Mobile apps also hang more than those running on the desktop. But the claimed speed increase in the 3G S is an indication that the same leapfrogging advances in memory and processing power we’ve seen on desktops and notebooks over the past decade is coming to the handset. The user experience will only get richer as a result.

Of course, even with nearly 40 million iPhone and iPod touches sold to date, the mobile story hardly begins and ends with Apple. But I think it is safe to assume that many of the features in this new iPhone will appear in some manner across the mobile platform in the next year or two.

Do we need more real estate websites? Maybe not.

Do we still need a better way to find place to live? Definitely.

The small screen is where that better way lies.