Monday, August 24, 2009

Yeah, There's a Web for That: Where are Mobile Apps Really Taking Us?

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter today with Rafat Ali, founder of and a person who I respect and admire greatly for his insights into the content industry (not to mention for having blown the socks off of many a trade pub over the past several years). Rafat had pointed out in a post on paidContent that The New York Times had started to use barrier ads on their iPhone applications, something that he found to be very intrusive. I couldn't agree more on this point; most media companies view mobile applications as little more than Compuserve-like kiosks from which they can serve slightly jazzed-up versions of their Web page content. With that in mind, it shouldn't surprise us that the NYT or any other media company will be intent on carrying over its ad strategies to these walled gardens.

As a follow-up, though, Rafat pointed me towards a good post on pC's mocoNews site that outlined the case for Apple's approach to mobile apps versus Google's more Web-centric approach. Tricia Duryee points out in this article that Apple had considered emphasizing the browser as the focus of delivering content on the iPhone, but then shifted to its App Store as a preferred method for getting people excited about the potential of mobile devices for delivering useful content and services. As she notes:
[T]he biggest problem facing Google will not be convincing developers, but consumers. Apple’s steroid-enhanced marketing machine has drilled into the public thinking that “there’s an app for that,” not that there’s a URL. Clearly after logging 1.5 billion downloads within a year, Apple is on to something and vigorously training the mobile users of tomorrow.
Sorry, Tricia, but I have to smile at that one. While Apple rolled out a very savvy strategy for the iPhone given its market position as a high-end product oriented towards proprietary intellectual property, I think that it's worth noting that a lot more than 1.5 billion Web pages, many of them with embedded applications, are downloaded every day on the Web. The iPhone's app strategy has certainly made mobile technology platforms far more usable and understandable for its early adopters, much as early premium online information services such as Compuserve and the original AOL made the still-crude world of networked information delivery more palatable. Similarly, early PCs benefited from a galaxy of packaged software that used to line the shelves at local stores, providing "user-friendly interfaces" that made still-crude PC technology more palatable.

But today the walled-garden services of Compuserve and AOL are distant memories, and packaged software for PCs is almost non-existent in most local stores, except for a few have-to-buy items like Microsoft Office software (about the most expensive items to be found on any of the shelves at our local Staples office supply store), accounting systems and tax preparation tools. Why? Because for the most part these products and services were attached to more mature technologies that no longer required packaged IP to help people get to the good stuff. In the instance of software, many of the functions that used to require packaged software are now available via cloud computing services, including tax preparation, bookkeeping, spreadsheets and word processing. In the instance of services like Compuserve, it also became a matter of scale: 65,000 or so iPhone apps sounds like a lot of services, but good luck finding any of them once you begin to scale up to more broad markets. Walled gardens are great when you have a cozy crowd, but most people's interests won't be content to stay in them very long when a good search engine can help them to find the next movable feast easily.

This isn't to say that there is not a valuable place for mobile applications in the mix of marketing strategies for publishers and technology companies. Good functionality with good content being fed into it is a winning combination on any platform. But if we were to speed up the clock and have this discussion a year from now, I don't think that people will be waxing as sanguine about the App Store as they are today - and not just because of Google's Android mobile platform hitting the scene. Real applications, as opposed to the lightly gussied-up browser substitutes that most publishers toss up as mobile applications, take time and thoughtfulness to develop and to roll out carefully.

Yes, a Safari browser is a somewhat different platform than a Chrome browser, and so on, but it's not very realistic to compare the relatively minor differences in how these packages handle largely open Web standards such as HTML compared to the larger, glaring differences between iPhones, Palms, Blackberries and Android phones. Mobile applications will be useful, but there is no practical way to expect publishers to deal cost-effectively with this broad array of approaches simply to get their content to and fro. No amount of seductive ads by Apple or any other platform manufacturer is going to be able to conceal this basic fact, it would seem.

The truth is, of course, that many Web pages are in fact driven by very sophisticated applications already, a fact that will be only accelerated by the emergence of HTML 5, which does more to merge programming functionality into the Web environment than previous versions of the basic code for Web pages. The architecture of today's Google Chrome browser hints at where this is really taking us. When you have more than one page open in a Chrome browser, each tabbed page is its own separate program process on your computer. If one tabbed page has a problem, it can stop functioning without affecting the other opened pages. In other words, Chrome as a browser is actually a multi-process program execution environment.

To put it another way, it really doesn't matter whether you're running a Web page or an application, as long as you can get to it easily in a standardized access environment. Why bother with a page of apps and a separate set of Web page bookmarks when you can have one unified environment where you can access whatever is important to you? Once you have that kind of environment, people will want to have billions of choices filtered by a good search engine or recommendation service rather than a few thousand apps that have to be "mother-may-I"ed through Apple before they can be accessed.

The iPhone App Store has been a very clever and useful marketing mechanism that has allowed Apple to make its platform more palatable and useful in a highly controlled way that's appropriate for any emerging technology. Let's face it, the mobile Web is still a work in progress, making the more sophisticated displays of some mobile apps far more appealing than dealing with the almost-good mobile Web functionality that's available on most platforms today. But given the already mature nature of the Web that's awaiting better browsing via Chrome and other platforms that will not intentionally cripple Web functionality to make more proprietary approaches more palatable to consumers, it's not likely that this artificial Compuserve-like era of iPhone applications can be expected to dominate the mobile content landscape very long.

iPhone apps will endure and even prosper for quite some time, to be sure, just as those early online services such as Compuserve managed to endure for several years after the emergence of the Web. But it won't take long for most content consumers to realize the difference between a transitional technology designed to bolster the margins of publishers and a more satisfying technology that connects them more effectively with the world at large. As long as companies like Apple can create new frontiers of technology that entertain and delight high-end mobile content users, we'll be hearing, "Yeah, there's an app for that" for quite some time. But if history is any guide to the future, it's not likely that any one company will be able to keep that phrase rolling off of their clients' lips when more powerful substitutes are available that intrigue more people more easily. Yeah, there's a Web for that, all right.
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