Michael Mace reports that mobile applications, or the development of software that runs on specific mobile platforms is dead. Michael Mace is an expert from the industry so he probably knows what he is talking about. He writes:
We told ourselves that the fundamental rule of our business was: Mobile is different. But we lost sight of an even more fundamental law that applies to any computing platform:
A platform that is technically flawed but has a good business model will always beat a platform that is elegant but has a poor business model.
As it turns out developing software specific for mobile platforms developers encounter many difficulties. According to Michael Mace there are at least 10 different platforms software needs to be developed upon. The software needs certification, which costs a lot of money. But most important of all, the mobile operator has effectively taken over all distribution making it nearly impossible for a mobile software developer to distribute his software. The solution to this, Michal says, is the web:
Meanwhile, there is now an alternative platform for mobile developers. It’s horribly flawed technically, not at all optimized for mobile usage, and in fact was designed for a completely different form of computing. It would be hard to create a computing architecture more inappropriate for use over a cellular data network. But it has a business model that sweeps away all of the barriers in the mobile market. Mobile developers are starting to switch to it, a trickle that is soon going to grow. And this time I think the flash flood will last.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about the Web. I think Web applications are going to destroy most native app development for mobiles. Not because the Web is a better technology for mobile, but because it has a better business model.
His most important argument to support this is that on the web the domination of the mobile operators is broken. I agree with Michael on that. The mobile operators do not control development, distribution, marketing and sales on the web. For this reason Google and Yahoo have very effectively pushed the mobile operators back into their role as access provider. It is the mobile operators arrogance, coming from a world in which they had a monopoly, that has lead to failed attempts to move up the value chain. Experiments with content distribution and other innovative services have failed. Mostly because the mobile operator, unlike most web companies, never had to think about providing the user with value.
So where does that leave the user? He is stuck with the world wide web that really doesn’t fit very well onto his small mobile device. Browsing the web using a mobile device leads to a number of problems:
- Browsing is expensive. Current web pages aren’t optimized for mobile devices forcing the user to download a lot of redundant information. As mobile data rates are still expensive the user is left with high monthly bills.
- Browsing is slow. I currently use a Nokia N95 with UMTS/HSDPA connection and still it takes ages to view pages on the web. Not nearly as fast as my laptop, making it a cumbersome experience
- Inputting data is a pain. I don’t have a keyboard to type, so I’m stuck using the mobile phone buttons. The overhead is at least 50% forcing me to type way more than I want to. And I tried using the iPhone’s keyboard. It’s arguably better than using the mobile phone buttons, but I still mistype a lot, because of the small size of the keyboard.
- The screen of the mobile phone is just too small to look at web pages. Apple has invented the touch screen and smart gesture UI allowing me to quickly zoom in/out ad move around on a page. But it really isn’t solving the problem, the UI is simply providing an optimized solution for a problem that isn’t fundamentally resolved.
- My Nokia N95 has GPRS/UMTS/HSDPA/WiFi/BlueTooth and Infrared capabilities. While this is technically probably the best you can get right now, it isn’t simple to use. This makes (affordable) access for naive mobile users a difficult task.
- A mobile phone isn’t a computer. It has all the technology inside that computers have too, but it is fundamentally different due to not only its size but also the way it is used. For me it isn’t a computer or a telephone. It is my remote control of life. Web developers often fail to understand the implications of this. We need fundamental rethinking of service development for mobile devices. Developers that translate web services onto mobile devices will not succeed in addressing these issues.
How can we get the mass to adopt the mobile web? In my opinion a few things need to be addressed first in order to make this happen:
- Mobile operators need to lower their data rate plans and come with easy to understand flat rate rate plans that allow users to download and upload as much data as they want without having to pay too much for it. The operators won’t be doing that just to please us of course. But with the increased competition in mobile voice, and from access technologies such as WiFi and possibly WiMax leading to price erosion, the operators will have to rethink their mobile data strategy.
- Hardware manufacturers need to rethink the software currently residing on mobile devices. It is too technical, too functionality oriented and is not fit to fill in my desire to make it my remote control of life. I’ve explained this earlier in a post called “We need a revolution in Mobile UI thinking”. Apple is doing a much better job than any of the hardware makers such as Nokia and Samsung and that should really make them think about what they have been producing so far.
- Service developers need to really understand what I use my remote control of life for. It isn’t a very small computer that I use to do the same thing I can do much better on a full size laptop. My mobile device is an interaction device. I use it to interact with others. I do not (yet) use it as a TV screen. I don’t need to have all my web services on it. But I do need every innovative service that allows me to interact with my family and friends. It contains my most important address book. It allows me to send and receive messages, I can call and talk to people, and in the future I can see other people on it too. I can capture images and video with it and I might want to share those immediately with my family and friends. I want to know what the people I follow closely are doing and I want to be able to reach one or many of them without any effort on my side. I want to see all messages addressed to me or messages the people I follow find important enough to share, no matter if it is SMS, e-mail, a Tweet, IM, whatever. Sure, I listen to music on it, I surf the web every once in a while, and I even sometimes watch some video or TV on it. But not nearly as often as I interact with others on it! Once we get the interaction right, we might start thinking about other services like identification or buying and selling of stuff. But interaction comes first, always.
The desire of humans to interact and use their personal remote control for it will be large enough to ensure that mobile Internet will become successful in the end. Since the (technical, cost) barriers are still quite large I think the mass will not adopt it yet. 2008 might be the year in which a number of the issues will be addressed. We might see further improvements in usability, platform standardization with Google’s Android, improved mobile search, the breakthrough of Twitter like services to the mass, and even a few optimized mobile web based services. We will see a few (ad-based) experiments to offer free or low cost mobile services. But my guess is that mass adoption of Mobile Internet will take a bit longer. First we need people to rethink the fundamentals so that the mobile device can support the interaction between the user and his contacts better than it does now. It’s usability could be so much better!