Friday, April 9, 2010

Apps Lapse: What Publishers Lose in the Race for Contained Content

Apps fever is sweeping across the content industry, spurring hopes amid content providers that software applications development toolkits available for mobile devices like Apple's iPad and iPhone and Google's Android phones will allow them to define new channels for revenues. Certainly "apps" that can be downloaded from online storefronts provided by these and other platform providers are taking off in a big way.

There are more than 160,000 apps available for Apple devices that have been developed over the past two years, while in the six months since the introduction of the Android Marketplace there are already more than 42,000 Android apps available. The lure of having a little icon on the desktop of these devices for apps that can add engaging features to content - and, many hope, premium revenues - is hard for most publishers and services developers to resist.

And why not? After all, mobile phones come equipped with all sorts of new sensors and services that make the integration of content with mobile services very intriguing. People are "checking in" to hot spots via geolocation apps like Foursquare and Godwalla, pinching and zooming their way through layers of data in mobile Google Maps, as well as downloading movies from Netflix and steering airplane traffic via Flight Control HD, not to mention reading news from magazines and newspapers. It's all a bit reminiscent of the PC-based consumer software revolution of twenty years ago, when store shelves were lined with all sorts of packages to make use of that generation's emerging technologies.

Go to a tech-oriented store today, though, you'll find that packaged software is pretty scarce. Along came the Web, making both software downloads an easier way to get a hold of zippy applications as well as Web sites that made content like CD-ROM references seem like stale stuff. Apps are in part an attempt to reclaim the glory days of premium packaged software, as well as an attempt to shove content services into Web-proof cans that will "protect" them from all of that nasty Web content that would otherwise be rubbing up against it. If you doubt this, try using the default search tool on the new iPad; you'll be directed to apps-only selections for your content, forcing you to go to your browser to find content from the Web via the search engine of your choice (by contrast, Google's Android-equipped Nexus One's default search looks at content on that device plus Web content, with a separate search for apps via Android Marketplace).

There are pluses and minuses for Web-based content versus apps-based content - thanks to Jill O'Neill of NFAIS for a link to this nice tech summary by Richard Padley - but the largest minus of all for content producers seduced by apps mania is findability. Although many apps consume Web-based content - or are, in many instances, just lightly reskinned versions of Web content - apps exist largely in a netherworld of darkness when it comes to search engines. That's just fine by many publishers that are more eager to reproduce the print experience on devices like iPad via premium apps than they are eager to get their apps content discoverable via the Web. In hopes of offering their advertisers and shareholders new value via apps through old software and publishing models, the presence of findable options for their content via the Web is a given, or, for some, perhaps, something that they wish would go away.

Yet, curiously, neither the Web nor the power of search engines to get good content in context at the point of demand show any serious signs of going away. In fact, with the continuing expansion of HTML 5 Web standards, Web-enabled applications are starting to interface with many of the mobile sensors that today's apps toolkits enable software developers to exploit. Publishers may be looking to apps as an alternative to the Web for advanced functionality, but the Web itself is becoming increasingly functional and extensible into sensors on mobile devices. Even in today's apps on Apple and Google Android devices, most links in both editorial and ads in these apps lead typically to Web content. The notion that apps are going to make the Web disappear by the desire of publishers willing it to be so is a myth. There is no substantial "there" in apps without the Web.

Nevertheless, apps are going to be with us increasingly as combinations of information and experiences that provide value to audiences in new contexts. As such, apps fit Shore's definition of content, content that still needs to be discovered as Web pages do, even if, perhaps, in different ways. In a sense search engines traverse some apps already by querying databases that drive some Web sites. But the broader question is what happens when unique content gets delivered via apps and not via their Web page equivalents, be it via HTML 5-enabled apps or via apps using proprietary toolkits such as Apple's. There's the strong chance that some sources of content will sink permanently into the "dark Web" again, not to mention new sources of content that will never be discoverable via the Web.

Great minds are thinking about this, of course, but not necessarily equally. One of the great neglected opportunities of the apps era is creating search utilities that can place emerging apps into the right context via search alongside more traditional page-based Web content. Already we get video clips, images and widgets delivered up via search engines that match particular queries or metadata clusterings; why not apps also? Some apps providers may balk at this notion, preferring to keep content consumers corralled into can-like containers that limit their options for cross-pollinating with rival apps platforms. The gaming console industry has certainly managed to keep stores that used to stock software well-lined with CDs that are in essence apps for those devices, so perhaps publishers have reason to hope. But my sense is that it's largely a false hope.

I believe that it's a false hope because browsers aren't going away any time soon. In fact, Web browsers are becoming only more powerful, with ever more technology packed into them to launch advanced applications as well as run-of-the-mill Web pages. Thinking of the rapidly developing Chrome OS operating system, browsers are, in their own way, even becoming devices themselves. If you thought that the iPad was slick, imagine what happens when you get an instant-on device that you can log into once and be enabled for both everything that the Web offers and everything that premium apps offer from one Web-driven touchscreen device? Now imagine one step further - imagine that it's all discoverable via one search utility. Game over, content industry friends.

The same discoverability issues will exist within enterprise firewalls, of course, if not moreso. Most organizations cannot afford to have their content locked into proprietary apps if they are to build business intelligence dashboards from multiple sources rapidly and effectively. Few will have patience for publishers wanting to sell them independent apps "cans" - you may as well tell them to go back to the era of CD-ROM products. No chance. As more enterprise-ready apps make their way to the marketplace, their day-to-day utility to individuals in businesses on mobile platforms will clash more and more with the need for those businesses to break open those cans to increase productivity amongst collaborators. Images of jolly executives toting touchpads to board meetings with print-friendly digital documents are largely mythical representations of how businesses really need to work today. It's not about individual convenience as much as getting teams productive as rapidly as possible. In a corporate world that's trying to break out of its own silos constantly, tight-as-a-can apps for content consumption are silos that few will be able to afford.

With all this said, the new generation of software and content services developed via emerging apps offer tremendous promise as platforms that can deliver real functional value to audiences. However, that functionality in and of itself cannot replace the need to find all of the relevant content that's needed to accomplish personal or organizational goals, be it through an app or any other number of useful content consumption tools. It's the ability to integrate content from multiple sources with multiple sensors that makes apps most valuable; using apps as a short-cut DRM tools based on proprietary standards shuts down most of the value that they have to offer in the first place. So, as you approach your apps strategy, remember at least these three simple rules:
  1. Don't use apps as an excuse to ignore the power of the Web
  2. Use apps to extend functionality that integrates content, not as a tool to segregate it
  3. Design your apps with content discoverability via search in mind - even if your current app store search tools may not warrant it
This is all a way of saying that although the current interest in apps has grabbed a lot of headlines, there will be plenty of other trends grabbing headlines in the months ahead. Brace yourself for an emerging, complex landscape that will be integrating the world of apps and Web pages into a cohesive whole of services, with search engines playing a key role in gluing these together rapidly into on-demand services that individuals and enterprises will be craving. If you thought that apps were going to line up your content problems into neat little packages, it's time to break out the can opener.
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