Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Apps: just a temporary red herring

We're seeing a breathless rush by publishers to produce iPad apps - the Telegraph announced theirs yesterday. It adds fuel to the discussion about the iPad and whether it is or is not the saviour of the publishing industry.  I don't really think that many people in publishing believe that Steve Jobs has answered all their prayers, although I suspect that many hope that he has.
There is a bigger discussion here: will apps/mobile sites etc continue to exist or will they be replaced by convergence with an increasingly widgitised approach to web sites? This is more than just a 'to iPad' or 'not to iPad' conversation. The same points apply to the broader mobile world.
That mobile world is currently driven by talk about apps. This talk appears to miss the role that can/should be played by websites. My feeling is that apps are a bit of a red herring. They work quite well under three conditions:
1. There are relatively few OS platforms for which we need to create (and maintain) apps.
2. There is still a general assumption that we will not be connected as opposed to the reverse.
3. Web delivery does not give the individual range of customisation and personalisation that our customers desire.
The first condition is clearly changing, and changing rapidly. In a world where Android and iP(whatever) are going to be owned by increasingly antagonistic owners, where Microsoft and Symbian will still be wishing to stake a claim, it is highly unlikely that there will be enough commonality to help developers. Apple's general approach to locking down and their stance towards Flash are good indicators that developing for their platform will not be an easy ride. If one adds in the alternatives then it all becomes a bit of a nightmare.
I'd like to think that the second condition will be proven to be plain wrong. It is instructive to see how much criticism Apple copped for not making the iPad 3g automatically and this seems likely to be one of the obvious changes in v 2.0 when it launches. WiFi is not yet ubiquitous but will be. It seems foolish to be betting against this when making strategic business decisions.
Addressing the third condition is something the web dev community is getting better at. Whilst widgets seem to have fallen slightly from fashion their spirit lives on.  We are increasingly seeing sites presenting content in configurable ways (look at the right hand column of LinkedIn for instance). Widgets free content from the rigid templates and sizing of a conventional site and allow it to be taken directly - from the same source - onto a wide variety of viewing platforms including many of the later smart phone/mobile devices.
The iPad apps do not offer any great advances in interactivity. Websites themselves can be more creative than they generally are, experience tells us that users drawn to the gloss and flashiness often (usually?) revert to simplicity over the long term.
The common ground, with firmly established standards, is the web. Businesses will choose not to develop for multiple platforms or die. There is no other decision that is sensible in the long term. My conclusion is that, in a couple of years, we are unlikely to need apps. Most access to content will revert to web channels, albeit channels that look much more like the current generation of apps. 
For the iPad this means that it will be doing what it was designed to be good at which will be great. But it does mean that publishers face the same issues that they do now. The app revenues are not scalable or permanent - they might offer a breather for the next few months for those lucky few that catch the imagination - but will not be a panacea. 

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