SoLoMo Update: Mobile-Only Social Networks To Reach 1B Users By 2014, 800M Users Of Foursquare + Other Location Services This Year

Crystal ball-gazing time from Gartner… The analysts, which last night published some stats on how PCs continue to reign as the woolly mammoth of the tech world, today followed up with a list of predictions for one of the areas still on a big upswing: mobile services, and specifically on smartphones and tablets (AKA the devices that are causing all that doom and gloom for PCs). Gartner predicts that we will see 1 billion smartphones sold in 2015, with a further 350 million media tablets sold by that time (as a point of comparison it looks like worldwide PC sales will be under 400 million units this year, using Gartner’s figures).

And it also wrapped those up with a list of suggestions of what services may still have some growing to do.

One of the standout areas are social networking features. Given how popular services like Facebook and Twitter are today — Facebook says that 40% of its active users, or 400 million people, currently use mobile devices to access the site; Twitter says that half of all usage of its site comes from smartphones — it’s surprising to see that on the whole only about 15% of mobile phone users are using social networking on their mobile devices, according to Gartner figures.

That is apparently changing fast, Gartner says, with mainstream adoption happening in the next two years, so that by 2014, there will be 1 billion people accessing social networks on their mobile devices. It’s not clear who will be the leaders, but it may not be who is on top today. “The market is crowded and users can be mercurial, so expect volatility, keeping a particular eye on acquisitions and the inevitable disruptions (small and large),” write Gartner analysts Sandy Shen and Mike McGuire. Nothing new there: look at this list from 2008 to see what names were most eye-catching then.

And while Facebook and Twitter continue to make ever more inroads into mobile, the so-called pure-play mobile social networks — think Path, Instagram, Foursquare, Mocospace and networks from China like Mobile QQ here — will also continue to gain ground, if also with a bit of consolidation: there will only be about 4-5 players worth noting by 2015, Gartner says.

Mobile app stores, meanwhile, are continuing to be a popular way for users to get what they want on their phones — Google Play for example hit 25 billion downloads in September — but Gartner thinks apps will reach a “plateau of productivity” in its Hype Cycle soon: within the next two years in fact.

That doesn’t mean that Gartner doesn’t think app stores are going to continue to be a hugely used resource by consumers, but that we may not see it grow much bigger after that period… and perhaps decline. It also means that while publishing an app today is definitely not a surefire success, that balance between hit and miss will probably become even more lopsided in the years ahead.

More on the upswing of the growth curve are location-based services. Like social networking, these can snag in a lot of different services — one could even argue that just about every mobile app, because its on mobile, should have location-based features worked into them. But for the purposes of its predictions, Gartner has limited its scope to pure location services, be they mapping or check-in services from the likes of Google, Nokia, and Skyhook, or Foursquare. It believes that by the end of this year, there will be 800 million people using such apps.

It doesn’t reveal a user number for 2015, but does note location-based services will be generating revenues of $13.5 billion by that time, driven by navigation and location search, as well as friend-finding apps that link into social networking features. Highlight is one of the more popular that offer such services already; and Facebook is likely to play a role here, too: Facebook has already been experimenting with “Find Friends Nearby” features on its mobile apps.

Lastly, mobile advertising is another big area for Gartner: Shen and McGuire say that this is due, yes, to smartphones and tablets, which provide a lot more opportunity to explore different formats and get used significantly more than basic feature phones did. Given that smartphones will reach 1 billion units sold by 2015, and tablets will reach 350 million units sold, these numbers will make mobile advertising “nearly indispensable for advertisers.”

But that won’t necessarily be translating to indispensable value, yet. Gartner says that by 2015 mobile ads will account for only 4% of all ad expenditures — although that’s still good compared to less than 1% today. That works out to a value of $20.6 billion — a 12-fold increase compared to today, the analysts say. Key players to keep watching in mobile ads are Google, Apple, Greystripe, Jumptap, Microsoft, Millennial Media, Velti and Yahoo, Gartner says.

What else is still to come? Gartner names three things that are still niche and growing: bar code marketing, mobile coupons and augmented reality. All three share some common features: a lack of consumer awareness, slow adoption and often-poor user experience. (These are my opinions, not Gartner’s.)  Bar codes, Gartner believes, could become “mainstream” within 2-5 years. Mobile coupon adoption has been “slow” and augmented reality reached its hype cycle two years ago (when it was, as it is now, still niche). Whether efforts by Apple with its Passbook service, or Facebook pushing further into coupons, or Google and its ambitions to do ever more integrating services like Goggles and Wallet, helps turn these challenges around remains to be seen.