Mobile phones shifting from fun to fundamental

Anyone who’s taken Psych 101 should remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a chart that organizes people’s needs, from basic physiological to safety and ultimately self. So what’s that have to do with mobile technology?

It’s a helpful guide in showing where consumers are currently spending their money in mobile and where it’s headed in the future, said analyst Chetan Sharma, in a new white paper (pdf) called How mobile will change the way we spend. Sharma said Americans overall spend about 15 percent of their income right now on the top of Maslow’s pyramid on self, which includes friendship, esteem, belonging, family and self actualization. Most of the impact of mobile, however, has been on this category but is shifting now to more basic needs, moving down Maslow’s pyramid to things like health care and wellness.

Sharma said mobile’s ability to compress time and distance are now having a bigger impact on mobile health care and will help increasingly with remote monitoring, alerts, data collection and management, wellness and information awareness and early detection.

Using Maslow’s pyramid is an interesting way of thinking of the shifts in mobile. A lot of the biggest app categories right now are geared toward self-actualization, interpersonal communication and fun. Games, weather and social networking are the top smartphone app categories, according to Nielsen. But health apps, like Azumio’s Instant Heart Rate and RunKeeper, which didn’t register as one of the top app categories used in the last 30 days during a survey in June 2010, is now used by 13 percent of respondents in the second quarter of this year.

That’s part of a larger shift I’ve noticed too towards more utility apps that cover things like safety and security. Life360, an app that I profiled earlier this year, has been on a tear, and recently grabbed 3 million users, most of that in the last year. Location Labs, another company I profiled, is moving toward an IPO with its family locator services offered through carriers. The company is also finding traction with insurance companies who want to deploy its technology to stop texting while driving.

These are sometimes overlooked as not as exciting or interesting as the hot new mobile game. But these “boring” utilities speak to where some of the growing opportunities are. It’s in things like healthcare, safety and education, basic needs, where mobile is able to leverage connectivity and ubiquity to really powerful effects. We have plenty of games but it’s cool to see mobile applied to real-world basic needs and problems. And companies are increasingly going to find, there is money to be there made too.

There’s still plenty of evolution going on in the mobile world. But as we look at the emerging opportunities, they will be spread out across Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Smart entrepreneurs should take note and see what needs are still not fully met through mobile.