eBay bringing mobile apps into the future

EBay has grand visions that put eBay mobile at the center of the virtual and physical shopping experience

Look out Google, you may have a new, unlikely challenger.

Google may be the first place people turn to for Web search, but the head of eBay's mobile efforts, Steve Yankovich, hopes to make eBay the first place that people look on their phones when searching for a product to buy.

"I want to replace Google as the de facto 'Where do I start,'" he said.

Yankovich, who's been with eBay for less than a year-and-a-half, is hoping to bring the company's mobile offerings from behind the times to the cutting edge.

Until the middle of last year, eBay users couldn't make a purchase from their mobile phones. They could bid on auctions, but if they won they had to pay later. There was no option to purchase non-auction items immediately, either.

By the middle of last year, however, eBay users could buy items directly from a mobile eBay site or applications like the one for the iPhone. By the end of 2009, customers had bought US$600 million worth of products from their mobile phones, Yankovich said.

He has expanded the team of people working on mobile products at eBay from just a few to 15. They have released an iPhone application for people interested in fashion and plan additional apps for other categories like sporting equipment, consumer electronics, motors and collectibles. EBay also offers mobile apps for Android and BlackBerry phones.

In addition, eBay plans to incorporate selling capabilities into the next version of its primary iPhone application. Today those selling features are part of a separate app. Since the primary application has been downloaded 12 million times, eBay expects the new version to encourage many more people to sell from their phones, he said.

The company will also launch a "motors app" later this year that will let people use a built-in barcode-reader feature to scan the Vehicle Identification Number of a car and do a Carfax lookup. The app will also let users enter the make and model of their own car and then filter searches for compatible parts and accessories.

EBay has also built but not yet released a reader for QR Codes, which are similar to barcodes, so users will be able to scan gift cards and coupons from eBay apps.

But Yankovich also has bigger plans. "The future for eBay on mobile also is to experience the product in a different way then you experience it today," Yankovich said.

The company is enhancing Red Laser, a barcode scanning app that eBay bought in June. "We're working on extending Red Laser to look at objects," he said. The application could identify an object not by its barcode but by its shape or color, he said.

That idea sounds similar to Google's Goggles, an application that lets people take a photo of a product with their phone and receive information about price and where to buy it.

Yankovich also wants to build more "augmented reality" features into eBay's mobile applications. One example could be where a seller could take a video of an antique chair. An eBay application would turn that video into a 3D image that a potential buyer could overlay on a photograph of their room, letting them see how it would look.

EBay already offers a similar feature in its fashion app, where users can overlay a piece of clothing on a photo of themselves.

But Yankovich has an even grander vision -- one that involves replacing Google as the place where phone users start when shopping. He wants users to think of eBay first as the place to find the best deals anywhere--both online and in person.

"I think the big prize here is to garner a large share of brick-and-mortar retail," he said. That doesn't mean that he wants to steal business from physical stores. "It's a combining of online and offline," he said.

For example, he'd like to see people use their phones to search on eBay for a product and find it on eBay, potentially in other online stores and also in nearby physical stores. The user then has the choice of how to buy the product.

The user could start out shopping in a physical store and use Red Laser to scan a barcode for a product. The application might let the store that the user is in know that the user is shopping for a better deal. The store can decide to match that better deal or offer the shopper a discount, delivered via an electronic coupon.

The idea sounds interesting, but eBay will have to be careful not to cannibalize its own sales, said Mark Beccue, an analyst with ABI Research. "I can't imagine they'd turn down business. So it has to be something that kicks you out [to a physical store] only if it's not something available on eBay," he said.

Going head-to-head with Google on search is a "tall order," said Beccue. However, eBay has some advantages over Google. "Google is a master of search. I don't know if many consumers think that Google is the master of e-commerce," he said. "Amazon and eBay are much better positioned for that than Google."

The mobile commerce efforts that eBay has made so far have already proved successful. Beccue said that in 2009, people in the U.S. bought $1.2 billion worth of goods from their phones. That means eBay accounted for half of the entire mobile commerce market in the U.S.

Yankovich has such high hopes for the potential of mobile commerce that he's projecting that eBay will sell $1.5 billion worth of products this year through eBay mobile. That's nearly three times what it sold last year.

"I have maybe the best seat for what's going on with mobile commerce in the world," Yankovich said. "I can tell you, it's amazing to me what's happening."

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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