For much of the past decade, Todd Christy of Pyxis Mobile has been pushing the idea that mutual fund operators should conduct their business on mobile devices, such as the now obsolete Palm Pilot.

His first taker, in 2000, were the John Hancock funds. In the past 18 months, though, a monumental shift has taken place, says the Pyxis Mobile president and CTO. It’s no longer corporations that are pressing Windows into their networks and, in turn, into the hands of their employees.

The driving force is customers, who are adopting smartphones and now tablet computers—en masse.

Even Fidelity Investments Chief Wireless Officer Joseph Ferra finds the sudden turnabout “very surprising.”

But the numbers speak for themselves.

In the second quarter, 14.7 million smartphones were sold in the United States, according to an Aug. 2 report from market research firm Canalys. Of these, 32.1% were sold by Research in Motion [RIMM], which has long catered to the corporate e-mail market with its BlackBerry devices. Number two? Apple [AAPL], at 21.7%. This, even though it just entered the business in January 2007.

And had to survive the well-publicized “Antennagate” surrounding its fourth generation of iPhone.
Much has been made of the fact that Apple sold 3 million units of its larger-screen portable device, the iPad, in the first 80 days since its release. But Apple is on track to manufacture 3 million units a month of the iPhone 4, by comparison.

RIM fought back on Tuesday, Aug. 3 with BlackBerry 6, unveiling a new operating system that supports touchscreens and location features. And Motorola, which almost became a non-factor when it couldn’t replace its thin RAZR phones, is leading a charge of mobile manufacturers relying on Google’s Android operating system to win the favor of individuals “open” to the idea of using applications on mobile devices that have “no central point of failure.” That is a technical dig at Apple.


This has led to a shift in the last six months from a focus in the mutual fund industry on business-to-business uses of mobile applications, Pyxis’ Christy said. The new focus: Business-to-consumer applications.

Christy likens the adoption of smartphones—and now tablets—to the rapid adoption in the late ‘90s of the consuming public of the text, image and video content of the Internet.

Now, the customer of a mutual fund, hedge fund or other asset manager has the basic expectation, he said, that account information and the ability to conduct transactions will be readily available on a smartphone or tablet, with a dedicated application.

But there are differences from the last sea change in how customers used computers to access fund information, Ferra said.

“They used to say content is king,’’ the Fidelity chief wireless officer said. “What we’ve learned is context is king.”

With smartphones, uses are “more targeted” to short, fast objectives. Attention spans are shorter. And, the individual is likely splitting attention, even so, among multiple tasks.

The goal, for a fund operator, then, is to respond with only the most important information that can be delivered in an eyeblink—“before the light turns green,’’ Ferra said. Back in the dot-com days, the lingo was all about attracting “eyeballs.”

In Fidelity’s case, that can mean delivering a quick-hit “account synopsis” to customers. The four main pieces of information: The employer’s contribution to a savings program, the employee’s contribution, the current balance in the account and overall performance, year-to-date.

Fidelity is hardly on its own, here. Vanguard in October launched its first iPhone application. It recently rolled out an upgrade, which can be used not just by iPod Touch devices, but Apple’s iPad tablets as well.

Customers can move money between their bank and their Vanguard funds; buy, sell or exchange funds within non-retirement accounts; view retirement and non-retirement account details and research possible new investments in funds and exchange-traded funds.

Since October, its application, available on Apple’s App Store, has been downloaded 40,000 times.

Such apps are “clearly taking off in financial services,’’ Ferra said. That’s because the adoption of quick-hit applications exemplified by those aimed at smartphones and now tablets have extended beyond the “technologically curious” early adopters and the “needs-based professional”—to individuals who simply are making “lifestyle” choices about what devices they want to use where, from the office to the living room.

Such individuals want to quickly gather data, view it and act on it, Ferra said.

“You can’t just tell them the market is active,’’ he said. “You have to make it possible for them to take action against it.”

You also have to make it easy. Fidelity has pursued a strategy of wireless trading known as Fidelity Anywhere, in which it allows a user to download its application and put a single-click icon on screen to launch it.  Fidelity also started, in the desk-bound days, to detect what browser a person was using, in order to deliver screensful of information to the customer in the best possible arrangement and resolution for that browser.

Now, it detects what device is being used, so it can, if allowed, send more complex charts and other information. Or, take advantage of particular characteristics, such as the ability (or lack thereof) to run more than one application at a time.

In the case of mobile apps, though, Ferra said, “less is more,’’ in general.

Even if it makes sense for internal applications like those Pyxis Mobile develops for fund families like Nuveen and Putnam to be rather involved. In the internal case, smartphone apps can help registered representatives learn about the sales persons they are about to meet in great detail or quickly display sales objectives they are trying to meet.

By contrast, applications for customers need to be fairly simple. Users need to know where they are, how to launch them and how to use them, without a thought. Because they do not want to worry about how they work, when the light in front of the sidewalk or of the driving lane has gone red or green.

“The wireless Internet is not just the Internet wireless,’’ said Ferra. “It’s a different experience.”