The New “App”

People think about apps differently than they used to. For a long time, applications have been a pretty thick layer in our digital sandwich: we paid lots of money for them and expected them to do big things. Those apps still exist: Photoshop, Visual Studio, Word.

But this weekend I bought three apps and paid a combined $1.98 for them: an iPad game for my kids, a movie finder app and an alarm clock. That’s a new way to think about apps and it seems to be a lot more like what we used to call content: these apps are cheap (or even free) and our relationship with them is transient, just like it is with a music video or a magazine.

The quintessential embodiment of this idea is, of course, the app store (slash app marketplace) where we literally shop for apps in the same place that we buy TV shows and music and movies and where the apps are cheap (enough to be expendable): if you scan the top 200 paid apps for the iPhone, only a handful are priced at more than two dollars and only one, the most expensive, costs 9.99. And those are the paid apps! Even more content-likeis the arsenal of ad-supported apps and the emerging advertising networks which support them. The mobile advertising market appears to be growing so quickly that even possible market losers are seeing astonishing success, at least according to Google’s Jason Spero who said “if we are losing share [to Apple], this market is growing faster than any one we've seen.”

So far this is mostly a mobile phenomena. Arguably, that’s at least partially driven by necessity: mobile browser are slow and awkward. Tasks that are well served by a webpage on my desktop are better served by an app on my phone. It’s nice to have an experience that is customized for a device and even nicer to pre-download all of the UI for that experience in the form of an app.

On the other hand, a curated app store is such an appealing model that, necessity or not, it is almost certainly on it’s way to a desktop near you. There’s little doubt Microsoft (and maybe even Apple) will extend the app marketplace experience to the desktop in the near future. Google’s already created the app marketplace for web apps (sold mostly through monthly subscriptions or supported by ads—once again, sounds a lot like content). Frankly, I don’t think that Photoshop is going away anytime soon but Office Web Apps are free today and presumably ad driven tomorrow.

What does this mean for developers?

I think about this a lot (as I’m sure you do). Change creates opportunities and this is an exciting time for us. It’s an amazing chance to be very creative (in the “create something” sense of that word). Here are the things that I’m thinking about:

First, you’ve just become very popular.“Apps” (in the way we’ve talking about them here) are making their way under the media umbrella. Moving into that ecosystem may come with some growing pains, but media has always made it’s money on volume. The margins are different and models will need to change, but ultimately the thing you know how to do (build great apps) matters more tomorrow than it does today.

Second, you need be platform agnostic.We all claim to be this, but most of us are pretty cozy somewhere. Maybe we’re looking at some platform convergence in the not-so-far-off future (HTML5?), but presently we’re dealing with a lot of divergence. When apps are content, they need to span across multiple devices and platforms just like other media does. You can’t afford to dismiss half of your market because of divergent technologies anymore than Radiohead can release vinyl-only albums.

Third, you need to think like a producer (not just an engineer).Don’t get me wrong, the world needs great engineers—so if that’s you then stay the course. But where the guy in charge of “software” is an architect, the person with a vision in the “app” world might be called a producer. When it comes to traditional applications (and infrastructure), the high order bit is stability (like a building). The success of an content-like app, on the other hand, is measured by its impact and its “production value.” Our love affair with an app may be short lived but it needs to start with love at first site. Creating that kind of impact comes from seeing the bigger picture and understanding the path to get there.

Well, there you have it. It’s a bright future for those of us who make apps: better software, more of it and in more places.


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