An App World?

App icon with exclamation pointIf you’ve picked up an iPhone, Android phone, iPad or just about any modern smartphone, you’ve probably used what is currently called an “app”. The popularity of this term is an odd phenomenon, given that apps, more commonly known as “applications”, have been around for dozens of years. We can thank the product marketing geniuses at Apple for taking something we’ve all had on our computers for next to forever and turning it into the next big thing in technology.

To be fair, an app on a tiny phone that fits in your hand is a slightly different monster than the Outlook application that sits on your desktop computer. Ten years ago, the idea of packing so much technology into a device smaller than a deck of cards was just a pipe dream. True, devices like the Palm Pilot had apps for various functions like calendars, email and so on, but modern apps have far surpassed them in quality and functionality. You can now run games on your iPhone that are comparable in quality to modern consoles like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. It’s really astonishing.

What sets today’s app world apart from applications of the past—both on desktop PCs and portable devices—is the sheer quantity and breadth of the apps themselves, not to mention the pace at which new apps are developed and released. Since the iPhone launched just a few years ago, hundreds of thousands of apps have been built for its app store, and thousands more are available on the Android platform. It’s an explosion in software like we’ve never seen before.

While none of us will ever download even a tiny fraction of all those apps, the ease of purchasing smartphone (or iPad, iPod Touch or forthcoming tablet) apps and the inexpensive, impulsive nature of the purchase have some pretty interesting implications. We are now accessing information in ways we may not have expected. Data is becoming specialized, something you click an icon to access rather than searching or browsing to find. It’s going to be a wild ride, and it may change the way we interact with web technology in ways we didn’t expect.

What is an App?

An app on your desktop computer is most often a self-contained little kingdom of its own. It has its own look and feel, its own data storage, and can function more or less independently of the other apps on your computer. It can also work, at least partially, without an Internet connection.

There are also quite a few apps of this kind on your smartphone. Your camera app, for instance, is self-contained and independent. You could be wandering the Sahara desert and it would still take pictures provided your battery had power.

Tons of smartphone apps, however, are not like this. Most require some kind of data connection to function properly, and a growing number of them are actually little more than replacements for the same content and functionality that you find on a website, like news or e-commerce. There’s something strange about that.

Let’s take a look at two popular social networking sites. Both Facebook and Twitter have free apps for you to use to access the very same features you get on their website. Well, some of them, anyway. You’re not going to be able to access your Facebook games on the Facebook mobile app (this is intentional, as most of those games are in Flash). Twitter won’t show you the same suggestions and promotions in their iPhone app that you’ll see in the web version. In general, these apps are simpler, faster versions of their web browser counterparts. And frankly, that makes them pretty awesome.

But it also begs the question: if smartphones are supposed to let you browse the web just like you’re on a real (but smaller) computer, why on earth do you need an app to access the same stuff you get in a web browser? The reality is that browsing the web on a smartphone isn’t all that great. Unless the web site owner has built a mobile version tailored for small web browsers, even cool features like pinching and scrolling with hand gestures don’t really make the experience all that much fun. It’s often a pain to browse many web sites on a smartphone.

So, now you have apps for many of your favorite web sites. You’ve got hundreds of other apps that are repurposing web content—news readers, sports scores, etc.—in a way that makes it easier to access that information. You’ve traded the one-size-fits-all world of the web browser for the convenience and focus of a single touch to get to the info you want. What’s so interesting about that?

Unintended Consequences

There’s a potentially radical change occurring here, and it has the potential to impact anyone who operates a web site. All these apps that repurpose web content represent a completely different way of accessing online information. As more and more users access content via smartphone, they are changing the way they navigate to the information they need. We used to open up a web browser, search for a news item, or maybe go directly to a news website. Now we download the New York Times or the CNN app and get our headlines with a single touch. It may not seem radical at first, but if you consider that so much of our access to online content has been through the search and address bars of web browsers over the last ten years, this looks vastly different.

You could argue that this is nothing more than a glorified method of bookmarking, but it’s not that simple. Apps exist on their own, and they can push cool or exclusive features to entice users to download or purchase them. They can differentiate in ways that a few dozen sites in your bookmarks bar cannot. Perhaps most importantly, people seem to love this method of accessing information. It’s simple, memorable and fast.

No one is more horrified of this trend than Google, and that’s why they purchased the Android platform a few years ago. Google’s fortunes are built squarely upon the world of online advertising, and every time a user pulls up the New York Times app instead of visiting the site in their web browser, those are hundred of ad impressions that Google did not serve. Goodbye, ad revenue.

Of course, the folks at Google are no dummies. They saw this trend coming many years ago, and not only picked up Android but also acquired AdMob, one of the largest ad networks for mobile devices. Nevertheless, for anyone who has built their online business on search results and advertising, the app model represents a significant threat. Stay on top of it or, even better, build an app yourself!

This article also appears in Identity Marketing Magazine. Brent Buford is the CEO of eBlox.