July 29 2009

Riding the wave of mobile apps

Posted by matt in Development

The idea that digital media evolves via an avalanche of “revolutions” must be attributed to the frenzy with which the press seize upon emerging concepts. Mobile apps are no exception: they are regarded as a transformative power emerging over the whole of the digital landscape, after which nothing will be the same again.

The prodigal success of the iPhone app store is no doubt a catalyst for both this media attention, and for a chain reaction of mobile app production. The revolution is with us,  but, we hear, this frenzied work will soon give way to the lull of traditional format wars (beta-max vs VHS style).


We are probably not going to arrive at some universal format: the hardware on these different mobile devices is always going to vary,  and sometimes innovation has to depart from the norm. The plethora of platforms out there at the moment is indeed a headache for developers who want their app to be available for the whole range of devices, but what should really be of concern is the points at which corporate control over formats can stifle creativity simply for capital gain.

Apple''s recent denial to give Google Voice permission to be a part of its app store is more than another installment in its saga of opaque decision making. This action is not opaque at all: the motivating factor was clearly fear of competition from a service that can provide an innovative new means of telecommunications.  Of course, Apple cannot stop an app being produced for other platforms, but its denial of access to a significant segment of the market can certainly sap the app's momentum.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that Spotify have been stirring up as much media attention for its new iPhone app, as they can manage. This is not just a matter of good marketing - it is about building a deterrent for the Apple censors, who are currently mulling the app over. The analogy with Google Voice is clear: this is another core competitor with the iPhone's functionality - it allows users to not just stream, but also to cache playlists of music on their mobile device, potentially rendering much of the appeal of the iPod rather redundant.

While Google may be reeling from Apple's denial of Voice, they are also setting their sights on a new future of applications.  They are attempting to raise another wave of hype, still waiting on the game-changing revolution heralded by cloud computing.


In a  recent talk at MobileBeat 2009, Google's Vice President for Strategy, Vic Gundotra, painted a picture of the apps market where this recent frenzy of downloading apps is a recent kink in a longer process by which software services are served via the cloud, universally accessible through the browser, the only piece of software a mobile device would need. If he is right, the whole discussion of mobile app format wars could itself become obsolete.

Whether we see cloud apps catch on at quite the level Google anticipates is yet to be seen (a key indicator will be whether the upcoming Chrome OS revitalises the netbook market, and convinces the public that they really don''t need to "have" their applications residing on their systems at all). But the internet is the paradigm of open innovation, and any future that increases the ability to elude censorship has to be a positive development: cloud-served apps would certainly be a step in the right direction.

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