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Michael Mace wrote an excellent post named "Mobile Applications, RIP" on his blog. You have probably read it if you "follow the mobile space". A lot of people has added their points, I'll add some links at the end of this post.
The end is nigh!
The gist of Michael Maces post is: Downloadable mobile applications is dead, crushed by a fragmented market and restrictive business practices. The problems are now so bad that even the mobile web looks like a better way to deliver new functionality to mobiles.
Much of the discussion following the post has focused on the choice of technology and not on what I believe Michael Mace really is pointing to, the broken business model. Selling standalone mobile apps to end users does not work. Hardware bundling is gone, web storefronts are gone and the carriers don't care about you. You are left with Handango who wants 50-70% of your revenue.
The web is supposed to save you, but the troublesome part is: What are you going to do between now and 2010 or so when AJAX capable browsers and browser APIs have reached mass market penetration?
All may not be lost. Before you put on a robe and join the choir chanting: "The next big platform will surely save us all", check out this emerging trend:
Handago and scattered web storefronts is out. Carrier portals is out. Software will be sold through on-device + web storefronts operated by the manufacturers.
- Software for the iPhone (and iPod touch) will be sold through iTunes.
- Software for Nokia devices will be sold through Ovi.
- Microsoft has just bought Danger who runs a an application storefront for Danger devices.
Manufacturers will act as a gatekeepers, deciding which are worthy of release, and publishing only approved applications.
"So what", you may ask. "How is this different from the operators controlling/selling applications?" Well, you might end up on the short end of the stick again of course, but there is a couple of pretty significant differences from operator portals:
Per device instead of per operator
The operator will ask you to support all devices they have sold over the last 2-3 years regardless of whether they align with your target audience or not. You are forced to create a lowest-common-denominator solution, when instead you probably want to create an amazing service targeted to music phones, phones with GPS or whatever.
“It’s time to go from defining the product based on the carriers’ desires to doing something completely new.”
“Who says you have to support 1,000 handsets from the start? How about 10 and see what the uptake is?”
Besides, forcing developers to support sub-standard devices is unhealthy for the mobile ecosystem. These devices needs to die.
One of the main problems with the operator portals was that there is no way for the consumer to separate the wheat from the chaff. Operators treat everything like another SKU because this kind of content is low priority. Depending on the operator, you may not even be allowed to publish your company name. And either you pay the operator out of your nose to get exposure or you get zero exposure (my experience, anyway).
Developers on the other hand want to build their brand and the manufacturer storefront might be better than the operator portal. At least it can't be worse.
Meanwhile, back on earth...
In contrast to the highly speculative prose above, here are a couple of statements from people developing mobile applications and services right now:
Barbara Ballard: "This quarter is not particularly different from other quarters: we get far more work designing applications than designing web sites."
Simon Judge: "From my angle, there has never been a time when there are more companies looking for someone to create their native application."
And from where I sit, I see mobile applications being developed like never before. It used to be garage operations that made mobile apps, now large companies are entering in a big way.
We see a lot of activity from ISVs that build mobile "companions" to their desktop-based software.
A couple of years ago everything was strictly vertical (and ran on Windows Mobile only). Now we see mainly horizontal applications like CRM systems, project management etc. for feature and smartphones in general. The clients sit in meetings waving their jailbreaked iPhones and demanding their software be "as easy to use as the iPhone". Its a joy to be an Interaction designer these days!!
The mobile applications I'm involved with are typically sold directly to enterprise customers (not end-users), installed and maintained by the IT department and the business model is the same as desktop software. A hefty per-user fee.
More on the conversation here:
Michael Mace: Mobile applications, RIP
Mike Rowehl: Native Mobile Apps vs Mobile Web Apps
David Beers: Have mobile apps had their moment?
Rafe Blandford: The future of mobile development?
Dean Bubley: Standalone Mobile Apps vs Web Apps on Mobile