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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mobile apps - will the fickle hand of fashion swing against them?

Wandering around Barcelona last week, I started feeling a deep unease at the current level of hysteria around mobile apps. It is was compounded this week by seeing a T-Mobile advert on the London Underground which didn't show a phone, but just said "Would you like a free phone with apps for just £20 a month?" [meaning "We'll sell you a cheap Android instead of an iPhone, but don't dare mention it or show it"]. Apple is bombarding the world with "apps, apps, apps" advertising as well.

I'm a great believer in the Tyranny of Consensus. When everyone agrees - it usually means that they're all wrong.

I'm wondering if the great drive towards mobile applications on smartphones, catalysed by Apple although obviously around for years before, has the longevity that many people seem to be assuming. Operators, device vendors, OS providers, 3rd parties - everyone wants a piece of the supposed action.

But maybe it's just a fashion? After all, do you *really* want any form of ongoing "relationship" with a handset manufacturer? Will the mass market really want to keep adding new stuff to their device?

The first 100-200m owners of PCs bought and installed lots of applications. The most recent 100-200m have probably just got Office, a browser, Norton or some other security package, Skype and their favourite IM client. Apart from gamers, most people don't continually look for and download PC apps - although they're there occasionally if need strikes.

Maybe the mobile will go the same way - you'll get a phone with a pretty good set of pre-installed capabilities, perhaps through some sort of pre-sale configurator. "Skype - tick. Spotify - tick" and so on. You'll get another set of applications when you set it up for the first time or over the first week of ownership. And then on an ongoing basis you'll get occasional updates of these, but it will only be once in a blue moon that you'll actually download anything new.

(One slight difference is the current perceived trust in AppStore downloads - there's not the same worry getting some random .exe )

Most "cool new stuff" will be in the browser, just as it is with the PC. And maybe, just maybe after you've got used to it, you'll bother to find out if there's a 20%-better application. Once there are easy metaphors for multiple browser windows and tabs on mobile, and more ubiquitous support for multi-tasking, the idea of a "widget" becomes obsolete. They're just contrivances to get around small screen size, I think.

Yes, there is an alternative future, where we're all browsing app stores on a daily basis. Perhaps it could come true. I have to be careful here, because when I'm wearing my "personal" hat, I have an in-built bias as I'm utterly disinterested in mobile applications, bar a very, very small handful that I'd prefer were pre-loaded on a device in the first place (Google Maps, Skype, Facebook, maybe Spotify).

Obviously my "professional" hat as an analyst means I have to be both interested in, and familiar with the broader ecosystems, but my job doesn't need to extend to my private life. I'm a bit of a purist, in other words - also reflected by the fact I drive a car with absolutely no modifications, and indeed no weight-adding fripperies like ABS or airbags either.

Cars hold another useful metaphor though. It's generally considered to be absolutely fine to "customise" a vehicle when it's ordered new - the colour, trim, special options like better brakes or sportier suspension. But that changes - for most people other than special groups of enthusiasts - in terms of aftermarket customisation. Suddenly, add-ons become gauche and geeky. Sure, it's more socially acceptable for a rickshaw driver in India or a bus driver in Guatemala, but in normal circumstances loading a ton of extra tat onto your car makes you look like an idiot. (Caveat here: yes, I know some countries have a more permissive attitutde to modifying cars, but then some also have a lax attitude to wearing phones in holsters on your belt).

The bottom line is that I'm wondering if the massed billions of phone users will really care about iPhone-style junk applications. Personalisation is all very well - but it's best done upfront, not on an ongoing basis. The hand of fashion could also start to dictate that people customise something else rather than phones.

A vision of 4 billion "modified" smartphones represents a dystopia of geekiness.


Anonymous said...

People buying apps on Nokia's did have the pattern you describe here, most people install apps for the first three months, and then nothing until they get a new phone. This usage pattern is before Ovi store though, it happened through the likes of Handango.

However, on the iPhone *and* even more on the iPod touch, people apparently keep buying apps throughout the usable life of the device.

Paul Jardine said...

I think what you say is very true. When I was working for a large retailer, we were expecting that the cutomers would buy pre-provisioned packages of apps; e.g. gamer, business etc with several flavours. We did not expect that the vast majority of users would go out and install them themselves. Perhaps the app stores have made it easier, but I tend to agree with you and think that people would rather the phone was pre-personalised.

Raman said...

Writing from Singapore, we have a lot of iPhones here .. almost every 2nd smartphone would be one. Two most common apps I use on iPhone are Mail and Safari (even more than the 'phone'). My friends, those two and many more and all of them quite different based on their hobbies/tastes/children.Some of the the geekiest of the gang have jailbroken theirs but soon came back to the 'locked' Apple world. Even though we are all not browsing appstore daily (unlike our first few months of ownership), we do recommend stuff to each other and buy. So in my opinion, at least in a market like Singapore, apps are here to stay - at least the good ones !
PS: My favourite now is Moron Test !