BlackBerry: We Don't Need No Apps!
The current phase of app mania may be coming to an end, and the clutter will lead to another level of more generic mobile apps.
RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie created a bit of a ruckus on the Web at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco last Tuesday, when he downplayed the importance of apps in the mobile user experience. "You don't have [to] make the Web an app," he said, and "I don't need a YouTube app to go to YouTube". There actually is a YouTube app for BlackBerry, but frankly, there is not a lot more to be found at BlackBerry App World. RIM does have over 10,000 apps available, but many are priced at a level that most would consider an "investment" rather than a "novelty".
Alan Panezic, RIM's VP of platform product management, further defined the difference between the Apple and RIM approaches to mobility by arguing that RIM doesn't "need 200 fart apps in App World. Those are apps you'll use three or four times then never open again. You're not looking at ads, clicking on ads or buying premium upgrades, and the app isn't adding any value to your device."
RIM's position can be cast as a cover for a rather glaring product deficiency, but Mr. Balsillie may have something of a point. The app explosion was an outgrowth of Apple’s iconic "There’s an app for that" ad campaign that sold the idea of apps as a key product differentiator for the iPhone (it certainly wasn't "voice quality" or "battery life"). That same app-driven market appeal is now fueling the Android explosion, and the downfall of WebOS with the ultimate sell-off of Palm to HP is clearly linked to their failure to attract developers to the platform.
The role of apps in delivering a compelling user experience is one of the key topics we wrestle with in mobility: can't we just get by with a browser? As Mr. Panezic points out, apps that you use once or twice provide no lasting value and just take up memory. I don’t need an app for a coffee shop I visit twice a year, but some, like the Nationwide Insurance app for iPhone, are pretty cool.
While browsers have revolutionized the desktop experience, there are a number of inherent shortcomings in the mobile Web experience. Quite simply, browsers were designed for full-size computers and work best when the user has a big screen, a full keyboard, a mouse, and two hands free. We can negate those advantages to some degree on Web pages that are designed for mobile devices, but the mobile Web is a different animal. Mobile sessions typically last less than a minute, are done on the run, and you want to get what you need fast and be done with it.
The basic design idea we cling to in mobile applications is "Do a few things well". That mantra led to the idea of apps that are geared toward specific tasks. Besides the growing clutter on your phone, there are a number of other and more challenging issues that come up when we move that discussion into the enterprise space. If we're developing a custom application, we now have to support a different version for every mobile operating system environment we support. In the case of Android, there are several different versions currently in circulation. Each new version includes new features that may impact the security profile, so keeping up with the versions involves more than just getting the thing to run on the latest release.
When faced with that prospect, applications that are accessed from the basic mobile browser look far more appealing. And we can make that mobile web experience even more appealing by modifying the Web page to work optimally on a mobile device. We are also starting to see applications that simply present a screen to the user, but selecting fields on that screen evokes Web-based commands that are sent to what is essentially a Web-based application. In that environment, maintaining the application involves simply updating that screen image we are presenting to the user, but the web application running behind it is remains unchanged.
I think that the current phase of app mania may be coming to an end, and the clutter will lead to another level of more generic mobile apps that supplant many of the limited-purpose tools we get today. Whether that takes us to the all-browser world envisioned by Mr. Balsillie or something in between remains to be seen.
This should be good news for the IP PBX vendors whose mobile UC clients only wish they could get the half the attention of those fart apps! Each has failed on their own in getting traction for apps that extended UC features to mobile devices. Maybe what we really need is one good mobile UC tool that can work with any vendor’s IP PBX or UC solution. Perhaps RIM will find that an app worth investing in.