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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Apps on smartphones = Geek. Apps on Facebook = Fun. Why?

I'm listened to a panel session at Handsets World last week about device personalisation. One of the panellists was convinced that it's all about adding applications to make the phone "your own".

However this runs completely counter to most "Normobs"' worldview. Normal people think that downloading anything to a phone (except a ringtone or Java game) is utterly geeky. Yes, among small groups of people this has changed somewhat - perhaps iPhone owners (although many of those are geeks anyway), or teenagers using a Java messaging app to avoid paying for SMS. But mainstream users? No way.

But another speaker made the very insightful point that many people who would recoil in horror at installing smartphone apps are entirely happy to stuff their FaceBook pages with all sorts of random plug-ins.

It made me think a bit about what the differences are behind this divergent attitudes.

The most obvious is platform. People have grown up installing applications on PCs, from the minute they take them out the box, through to the familiarity of the Installshield process and frequent updates to OS and various client applications. Conversely, people have grown up using phones, as, well, phones, or maybe MP3 players or cameras. It takes a long time for attitudes to change - and especially when people don't think of things as "programmable". There's no reason you couldn't install aps on a camera, or a car, or even a toaster, but it would feel weird. People don't think of these items as using software at all. I remember the weird looks I got when I told people that my car's electric windows had a software bug that meant it had to go back to the dealer.

The second difference is in virality. On mobile, you can't really recommend installable apps to friends or acquaintances. You don't know what phone they have, if there are any operator customisations to the UI, or even whether their networks' policies permit the app's use. It's no use saying "everyone with an iPhone / Symbian / Java MIDP3 device can get it" - most people neither know nor care what devices & contracts their friends have. On FaceBook, or on a PC generally, you can be pretty sure that everyone you forward a recommendation to can benefit from it. Until there's a reliable "vector" for viral adoption of mobile apps, it'll remain a minority sport for enthusiasts only.

Thirdly - and specifically with regard to FaceBook - it's a web service, not a downloaded app. Yes, you have to agree to assorted permissions and access privileges. But there's no "are you sure you want to install this?" trauma. It's interesting to see the push towards browser-based web services and platforms like Nokia Ovi, which should take the pain out of driving handset usage by avoiding the need to install device-side software.

My question to the Personalisation panel was about the realities that I see in the marketplace, rather than wishful thinking. To my mind personalisation is still about exterior of the device (shape, colour, style) and also the combinations of multiple devices. Having a red BlackBerry as well as a black N95 says more about you than any amount of software installed on an iPhone.

Amusingly, as I got off the plane on the way back from Berlin, I saw a girl in the row behind me - she had two (inexpensive) pink phones - a Moto KRZR and a small Samsung, I think. And a pink portable CD player. Now that's personalised.


Anonymous said...

Interesting "real-world" perspective on what personalization means to a normal person.

I think we need to get out more :)

Anonymous said...

Great insight and definitely true.

It's the reason the iTunes App Store will do very well: everyone going there will do so knowing that everything listed works on their phone.

Anonymous said...

Having been living in UK, Sweden and other asian counties, I got a feeling that all these stereotyping is particularly serious in UK. It is not necessarily the view of majority in the world. Correct me if I am wrong.