By AARON HOUGHTON, special to LTW

Editor’s note: Aaron Houghton is chairman and co-founder of e-mail marketing firm He shares his thoughts on the key takeaways from this year’s event.

DURHAM, N.C. – This year’s annual conference returned to its roots in Aspen, Colo. after three years in California. The event was held at Aspen Meadows, home of the Aspen Institute, an international non-profit that fosters leadership and the debate of society’s critical issues.

To say the least, the biggest thinkers in technology, from startups at multi-national corporations, were on hand to express their opinions and challenges for the future.

Over three days of personal keynotes, engaging debates, and intimate roundtables I condensed a few recurring trends from the minds of the 400 speakers and attendees. Here’s what the technology world is thinking about right now.

Mobile Platforms

The big discussion around mobile is platforms. Each platform builder has different needs, different end-games, and different skills but everyone agrees that success will be defined by the sum of handsets sold and service usage.

Apple iOS is in the business to sell hardware devices and broker apps and media in their marketplace. Google Android is in the business to expand the volume and reach of their search network. And HP Palm is in the business to sell hardware devices and make the rest of their hardware and software suite relevant to mobile users.

The biggest differences in mobile platforms are openness, access, and development language. Apple has chosen a closed platform and a proprietary development environment with their iOS platform. Android has chosen an open platform and a proprietary development environment. To many it seems that Palm isn’t quite on the radar enough for anyone to care what they’re doing. But I think they’re a dark horse with a great strategy. With the recent purchase by and backing from HP I expect we’ll see a lot more out of Palm and their WebOS platform which they have chosen to open to developers like Android. Unlike Android and iOs though, WebOS will allow developers to build apps using standard web technologies including Javascript, XHTML, and CSS. Standard web development tools combined with an open mobile platform, now that could be really cool (and they’re going to have Adobe Flash too).

The general conference opinion was that Android would soon surge past iPhone in mobile platform market share and a quick Google search confirms that Gartner says it’ll happen in 2012. Some at the conference even mentioned that when it comes to service utilization (likely measured by Internet search volume) Android is already leading iPhone today.

Future of Search

Search is still the biggest commercial idea in the history of the Internet. Google concurs. But a lot is changing in search as new data sources feed both ends of the search equation including social, local, mobile, and real-time. The end-game is relevancy and the more current data the search engines harness the better the results will continue to get.

Social: Information about your friends, what you have expressed that you like, and recent activity within your social graph provide a better understanding of products and services that you might prefer. And don’t expect it to end there. The items your friends buy will likely inform the information you see as well. Choose your friends wisely. Companies with the most social data include Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Local: Although it may seem like a reduction in functionality, locally scoped searches are actually big business because most consumers spend a lot of money with local providers. Even though the Internet spans all reaches of the globe local search evangelists think you’ll always find things in your backyard to be just a bit more interesting. Companies ahead of the game in local data include Living Social, Groupon, and Gowalla.

Mobile: Certainly the most visible component of search and often the most handy, searches conducted on mobile devices represent your interests during hours of the day or at locations where the desktop-bound searches of last decade have never seen light. Companies who control the mobile platforms have a first leg up on mobile search data and include Symbian, Apple, Google Android, and Palm.

Real-time: As searchers continue to maintain Internet connectivity through more of their day, the search engines are scrambling to organize and display data that moves just as fast. Google now pulls results from Twitter and allows a filter for results within the past day, week, or month. Social networks allow you to update your status every few seconds 24 hours a day. Google and Twitter are certainly at the forefront of real-time data.

Organization of Social Content

Another conference undertone, and one where the problem was mentioned often but potential solutions were rare, was the future of social and published content. Flipboard, a web startup that turns all of your social content into a coffee table quality magazine on your iPad, demoed their absolutely brilliant bridge between the digital and physical worlds.

Although it may be clear to everyone that public details about your friends within a social network could be served up on a digital platter for your indulgence, it’s not so clear when it comes to all of the other types of information on the Web. What about the Wall Street Journal article that your friend has linked to from within her LinkedIn profile? What if your friend is a WSJ subscriber? If you have access to that information and a content aggregation service mashes it up with other helpful data from a variety of sources, who owns the resulting content?

We heard from both the content creators (big media companies and their corporate sponsored content outlets like Hulu and the Fortune Magazine iPad App) and the content aggregators (software services like Flipbook, YouTube and hardware devices like Kindle, iPad, and smartphone and Internet enable TV vendors) and no one was willing to state where they think the line will eventually be draft. The line itself is being referred to as the pay wall in conversations on the topic.

Many unknowns remain here. In the end, which companies will control the path to those who consume information? How much of the path will each party control? How much content will remain free? Is free content good marketing or good journalism?

Last year at the conference in Pasadena, CA, stone faced Mint.com CEO Aaron Patzer told the Fortune Magazine reporter moderating his panel session that the necessity for his skill and journalistic ethics would soon be fully replaced by content created by social web users.

Only time will tell.

Evolving Marketplace Strategy

To me this may have been the most interesting topic at the conference and it aligned directly with my personal thinking as a student of tech startups and business strategy.

The question with massive consequences here is really quite simple. Are marketplace operators like Google, Salesforce, Facebook, and Twitter expected to operate a marketplace where all participants play with the same set of rules? Or can they begin to compete with marketplace participants in ways that maximizes value to themselves? Or can they be trusted to do both?

Much the same way you can find HT Trader chili mix in a Harris Teeter grocery store beside a long list of competitive chili mixes (on a shelf that Harris Teeter controls), Google has recently entered both the mortgage lead and travel industries. Now alongside LendingTree and QuickLoans in the results of your Google search for home refinance you may find an offer for the same service directly from Google.

And it’s not just Google. For several years now Salesforce.com has been acquiring companies from their AppExchange marketplace and turning them into components of the core Salesforce product. Facebook is working on a proprietary currency trading framework that will compete with a variety of providers that do big business on their platform today. Even Twitter has announced plans to release more advanced features like link shortening and premium analytics, services provided by a number of providers who have built on top of Twitter currently.

Don’t get me wrong, the question isn’t whether or not these companies should innovate within their core products. Instead what is being asked is what are the privacy, fairness, and economic implications of being both a marketplace administrator and a competitive participant? From a purely financial standpoint, are the profits gained by taking a competitive position within your own marketplace greater than the cost you incur to the reputation of the marketplace itself?

In a time when software-as-a-service and cloud computing services are earning the trust of more traditional businesses will the next barrier be a lack of confidence in marketplace fairness? In the long term it’s easy to wonder if marketplace participants will try to create their own marketplaces with more concrete rules of equality or if governments will step in to regulate

Along the same lines the Internet as a whole is going through a crucial checkpoint where our government will soon decide whether or not all data that travels through US Internet pipes should continue to be treated with equal opportunity.

The data exchanges managed by US telecommunications companies must currently treat all traffic that passes through with even priority. But, if Net Neutrality, which is currently implied (as it has been since the dawn of the Internet) but not yet law, is not passed the telecom companies will be able to set priorities for different types of traffic based on that data’s alignment with their greater economic interests.

For instance, your home Internet provider Time Warner Cable might adjust the amount of bandwidth they permit you to use as you are downloading a movie from your Apple TV device because they offer a competitive home movie service through the cable box. The potential for telecoms to double dip their revenue streams in your Internet traffic poses an entirely new set of marketplace challenges and questions for the Internet as a whole.

Get the latest news alerts: at Twitter.