In a recent conversation on SMS Text News regarding the future of the mobile industry – and in particular where applications and clients were headed – the point was put that “The operators have spent so much money that I just can’t see them letting go very much.”
I beg to differ. We are ‘letting go’, in the form of increasingly flat-rate data plans. We see month-on-month growth of data plan sales that eclipses ANYTHING seen previously. Our Mobile Broadband product managers have huge grins, thinking of bonus time. Our network planners sweat buckets and pray to the gods of modulation to deliver them from congestion.
If ‘letting go’ means ‘welcoming thousands of app developers with open arms’ then we must sadly disagree. Many developers see this as something the MNO’s *MUST* do. I posit that we *CAN’T* do it. We simply don’t have the teams in place, or the business model to support said teams. In the age of niche, of the long tail, you cannot dedicate staff to managing a product that only appeals to a small base. You have limited marketing resource. Limited ability to put apps / links on portal / screen. We CANNOT put our brand behind it, and agree to full customer support for it, because the cost of training everyone in the organisation is prohibitive.
So the future as I see it is many niche apps (encompassing clients and web apps) that customers can access via their open, flat-rate device, from ‘stores’ or from ‘Sources’ a la iPhone Installer. There is a widely-held belief that user-installed apps are dead (were they ever ‘alive’ to the masses?), they are too hard for most people to use. This is a viewpoint spawned by the currently appalling experience – to a non-geek – of installing apps on Symbian handsets. Quite rightly MNO’s are loathe to promote something that we know will be a customer-unfriendly experience to install & configure.
But there is light at the end of the application tunnel. The amazing success of FaceBook Apps (indeed, what is FaceBook without apps?) and the ease of adding them, connecting them to other services like Flickr, Dopplr, ShoZu, should give us hope. Hope that customers will discover and ‘install’ applications if they a) see the benefit of doing so and b) are not scared of breaking their device. Mobile phone apps need to be as easy to install as FaceBook apps. Get the OS out of the way and watch the public lap them up. The jailbroken iPhone gave us a taste of this, although by dint of being jailbroken you are immediately looking at someone pretty comfortable messing with the innards of a phone.
The beauty of the iPhone App store model is that you as an O2 iphone user can pay to download an app, and if it goes belly-up you will take umbrage with the Apps store and the developer, not with O2. This is the first time mobile consumers have been exposed en masse to the PC model of application purchase and – critically – support. You don’t call BT when your Skype client goes on the fritz (well, after ascertaining that everything else is working OK). No, you grumble to Skype, maybe reinstall it, maybe visit Skype’s help forums. For the mobile industry this is a paradigm shift.
MNO’s will continue to hunt for key differentiators – apps to pre-install on handsets and fully support. These exclusive deals with major names or really top-notch startups who pass muster will continue to happen. MNO’s will continue to pay product managers and marketing departments to manage and promote the eBays, Skypes, BeBo’s, Monilinks, MusicStations, etc etc. But these deals will be – literally – one in ten thousand.
There will always be users who are way beyond the curve, who can walk into a store and know far more about the devices and apps than the worker bees. These people will always grumble that MNO’s are too restrictive, too slow, too afraid. Some MNO’s are. People are like that, and people run MNO’s. Our customers are like that too. It’ a gradual change happening, kicked off 18 months ago by T-Mobile & 3, kicked in the pants by the iPhone a year ago and no doubt again this Friday. The public are slowly learning what’s possible and what to expect. It’s gathering pace. The enablers are lining up, heads are getting around what is possible, what works, what doesn’t. We are Letting Go, and in doing so everyone will win.
Developers need to evolve along with the MNO’s and customers. Some will be wildly successful, most won’t be. The ones with viral apps, that hook into un-mobilised communities, enabling them to engage in their passions instead of just being another ‘me too’ IM or MoSoSo tool, they will succeed. The Great British Gardening app will rise, I’m sure.