[With the phenomenal success of mobile apps, the world of content is migrating from web 2.0 to apps as the new format for creating, packaging, discovering, paying and interacting with information. Andreas Constantinou analyses how apps are the evolution of Web 2.0 and where this phenomenon will lead us next]
Billions of downloads. That’s how the success of software platforms is measured today. And while downloads is not a currency (it does not necessarily translate into revenues), it does create plenty of free buzz for software platforms. This is the world of apps.
But what is an app really? It’s not just a bunch of code and a fancy UI. Apps are the new channel for delivering services and experiences in mobile devices, taking over from the old world of web pages, texting, ringtones, wallpapers, MMS, Mobile TV – and some would argue voice, too. What’s interesting all these technologies were agreed over 1,000s of meetings and years of standardisation work taking place across (mostly) network operators in the 80s and 90s. In the case of apps, none of this had to be ‘standardised’, just adopted by a critical mass of software developers and in turn a critical mass of users. Today the billions of downloads are indeed that success metric of de-facto standards like iOS, Android, Blackberry, Symbian and Java – even if the vast majority of downloads take place on a small fraction (5%) of the devices sold.
Despite the fragmented nature of the app economy, we ‘re reaching a milestone at the end of 2010: more than 500,000 mobile apps will become available for Apple, Android, BlackBerry, Java ME, BREW, Symbian and Windows Phone devices in total.
The number is only a fraction of the big picture; what apps have accomplished is an unprecedented speed of innovation and a diversity of use cases. Think about it; traditional mobile services cater mostly to communication needs. Apps cater to the entire spectrum of consumer needs: entertainment, travel, health, food, sports, finance, education.
Network operators have for years been trying to increase service ARPU, i.e. revenues stemming not from voice, texting or data traffic (which are consistently declining due to regulation and competition), but revenues stemming from additional services. Operators (aka carriers) have taken a technology centric-view which is that new revenue can come from the introduction of new technology – MMS, Mobile TV and 3G. Instead apps have taken the view that new revenue can come from addressing new consumer needs. And that’s how apps have allowed mobile to tap into a far more segments of the user spending pie.
Apps as the Web 3.0
Such is the allure of apps that every brand and every service provider is looking to create their own apps, whether as part of their brand identity, as a lead generator, a traffic driver or even a direct revenue source. Soon every enterprise will want their own set of apps, essentially creating a more intelligent mobile intranet, for example with apps for guiding you to your next meeting, for inventory tracking or on-the-spot videoconferencing. We can easily imagine a world where there will be an app for every brand, every service provider and every corporate intranet.
Apps have grown out of the roots of the web; in a sense an evolution of Web 2.0, adding not only new forms of interaction, but also new forms of discovery, monetisation and deeper user context, as summarised in the next table.
|Discovery||app store||text results or URL|
|User context||location, contacts||explicit info only|
|UI design focus||tailored experience||compatibility|
|Interaction model||touch, sensors, keys||mouse, keys|
|Usability focus||get things done||explore|
|Economy||download economy||attention economy|
Some aspects are worth highlighting:
Discovery is critical to the take-up of mobile apps. Webpages are discovered through Google search or a memorable address. The results you get back from Google take a lot of second-guessing as there is no information semantics describing a webpage or its relationship to other pages. On the contrary apps are published with semantic information as part of the submission process; genre, description, price and screenshots, while downloads, ratings and recommendations are added in-life. This makes discovering apps much more straightforward and intuitive.
User context. Apps have access to location and contacts (subject to certification/approval in some cases) whereas web pages only have access to explicitly provided user info.
Monetisation should also not be underestimated. The freemium business model and the ubiquity of freely available news on the internet arose from the lack of effective micro-payment mechanisms; it is too cumbersome to take out a credit card and pay 10 cents for reading a newspaper online and no payment provider has managed to simplify this (although Paypal and Google Checkout are trying). On the contrary, many app stores have included micro-payments (pay per download) from day one.
Apps are now going beyond mobile. Not only to tablets (see iPad and the tablets coming with Android 3.0) but also to the web (Chrome Web Store), the desktop (Mac App Store) and the billions of connected devices out there from TVs to cars.
Apps are also changing the rules of the game for Google. The search giant rose due to three factors: the open (crawlable) web, the lack of information semantics (necessitating a pagerank-type taxonomy) and the lack of a micro-payments (thereby increasing the demand for ads).
Now the world of apps is coming to threaten the foundations of Google’s success: the web is becoming segregated into walled information gardens (exemplified by Facebook and Apple’s App Store), apps carry information semantics (thereby greatly reducing the search space), and micro-payments are the primary revenue model for apps (thereby decreasing the need for ads as a monetisation medium).
Google is of course preparing for the world where apps become a mainstream means of accessing the world’s information by launching is own walled gardens (Orkut and Buzz), its own app store (Android Market and Chrome Web Store) and now integrating a payments technology (NFC) within Android handsets.
So where are we going next?
The web as the new app
HTML5 standardisation (and initiatives like Webinos) are trying to make the web a primary app platform with offline access plus access into contacts and other user information. In parallel the WebKit engine is being consistently adopted in mobile handsets by just about every manufacturer with over 350M deployments up to the end of June 2010.
More than anything, web technologies are being adopted by mobile platform vendors looking to renew their platform and developer strategy. In order to be competitive, a platform today needs to have three elements:
- mature technology and tools
- an active developer community
While you can buy technology, buzz and developer communities are very expensive to build. Like a deus ex machina, web technologies come out of the box hype-ready and with an established developer community. As a result, Nokia, Palm (now HP) and RIM all chose web technologies in WRT, WebOS and WebWorks respectively, as the technology basis of their platform. I believe players who need to refresh their platforms (like Qualcomm’s BREW MP, Samsung and LG) would opt for web technologies.
Web technologies also allow mobile platform providers to tap into new developer segments (designers, scripters, back-end developers, CMS developers and more). More importantly, web technologies reduce the development costs for cross-domain development across mobile, tablets, desktop, car, and consumer electronics from toys to TVs.
Once web technologies are consistently adopted in 3-5 years we should see web move from today’s lowest common denominator to powering the next-generation of apps across connected devices, from toys to TVs and from web pages to apps – and the browsing (exploratory, lowest-common-denominator) experience moving to resemble an app (getting things done, immersive) experience. Perhaps this is the Web 3.0 we ‘ve all be waiting for.
The question is: are apps a ‘blip’ on the radar before the web takes over again? No – apps represent the evolution of creating, packaging, discovering, paying and interacting with information – and while today’s apps are based on mostly proprietary technologies (Apple, Android, BlackBerry, BREW, Symbian, Windows Phone) tomorrow’s apps will be mostly based on web technologies. As to the open web vs closed web silos debate (analysed eloquently by Wired magazine) history teaches us that closed silos are faster at innovating that the open web – and that the web governance will oscillate between the yin and yang for the years to come.
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