This weekend I had an interesting chat with some pals who somehow had all come to buy iPhones at exactly the same time. Obviously they were raving about them and were discussing which apps were good to download. Being 60% of the way towards becoming a grumpy old geezer I unleashed an ill-informed rant about how apps are the stupid person’s way to use the internet. Barely a week seems to go past without another news story about how many billions of app downloads from the Apple store, or how many apps are available for sale there (around 90,000 at the moment I think).
However, it’s quite counterintuitive that apps have become so important in the mobile content market. BlackBerry (RIM) and the manufacturers are desperately trying to catch up with their own versions of the App Store. If someone offered you a programme for your home PC, which you can download and it will show you the weather, or give you travel updates and what is more, it costs £1.99 you would politely invite them to piss off. That is what the internet is for, and you download one programme – an internet browser – to look at all the myriad different types of content online.
In a way, the mobile manufacturers and networks are the architects of their own predicament. The market that evolved between them set the stage for a single minded player to enter and create something well arranged for the users themselves. The mobile telephony and data market has been characterised by the manufacturers and the network providers each trying to ‘own’ the user’s experience. No-one wants to become the ‘dumb pipe’. Can you imagine how stifled the fixed line internet would have been if each of the players – telephone company, modem manufacturers, computer manufacturers would each have been able to block or change the end users experience of the internet. That is something approaching what happened over the last ten years, and is why the much vaunted ‘year of mobile’ hasn’t happened yet.
Apple were very acute in seeing a way through to avoiding this rat’s nest and having a direct relationship with the customer, as well as being on top of a very large distribution network. Apps certainly have improved the user experience, but as people become used to using the mobile internet, and as open systems tend to win out over closed ones, over the long term apps will probably start to die away in favour of using the internet the way it was intended.