Apps And The Revenge Of The Silo
"Is it a touch screen? Where are the controls? Wait..." she yelled as I walked away without a word. This has been the drill for the last decade: digital kid has to figure it out without instructions from me. Report back and explain the details to dunderheaded Dad. Other parents have Girl Scouts and Little League to share. This is the generational ritual my daughter and I have. It aids her self-esteem, acculturates her, and gives her bragging rights over everyone else at school. And I get father/daughter quality time without having to suffer a baseball game with irritating parent cheerleaders or (worse) a camping trip. Until Coleman makes a combo portable stove with HDTV, iPhone dock, and broadband connection, a scouting troop wouldn't want to put me into the woods.
Once she figured out that the iPhone-like screen of the PSPgo flipped up to reveal controls, all was well. That she expected it to work like an iPhone says tons about how much Apple has changed our thinking about devices altogether. But more to the point, Apple has realigned media distribution. This PSPgo has no hard media to insert. It is phone-like in its reliance on digital downloads, either through WiFi or a PlayStation 3 game console connection. Even more striking is the appearance of "mini" games in the Sony network store. Like the Nintendo DSiWare shop, Sony is following the iPhone model in offering small and cheap downloadable games. I understand that digital magazine and comics are coming soon as well. The app model is proliferating to a range of devices. Now it is part of the rumored Apple Tablet as well.
This battle among smart phones and handheld consoles surely will be among the most interesting to watch in coming years. As so many companies move towards an app-centric model, I am starting to look at it more closely for chinks in the system. As I mentioned in the last column, I am hearing more rumblings about the limitations of the app model, especially in regards to its reach compared to the mobile Web. But as I come to rely on apps for most of my mobile data I am also wondering how much the model is a bit regressive. After all, brands of all sorts love the way that apps allow for greater design flexibility and control of the user experience. But is that just reiterating the old silo-ed notion of media brands that the Web helped pull down? Does the app model satisfy a publisher's fantasy of reclaiming the user from a fragmented digital mediaverse without necessarily advancing richer ways of accessing data on mobile devices?
In my everyday use of news apps, for instance, I find myself more reliant on a select few brands, sometime even one, while my Web habits are much more diverse. This is to be expected on mobile to some degree, but it also drives home the point that an app icon is not really like a Web bookmark. Popping in and out of USAToday, CNN, AP News, or HuffPo apps is just more of a chore than doing the same quick news run on my Web bookmarks. Moreover, the interface shifts are more dramatic among these apps than they might be online. Each of these sites brands themselves distinctly on the Web, to be sure, but in each of their mobile apps I have to re-scan the top and bottom line icons and recall how each treats a click. Will I get thrown out of the app to a Safari browser when I tap this link or that ad? In an environment where every click matters much more than it does on the Web, these small points have an effect on how you triage your news on a handset.
The Web experience has been built on links and interconnections among content. In this age of social media, blogging, and news aggregation, the linkage effect is even more critical. In most cases, the mobile app world discourages the interconnectedness of information. Most hot links kick you out of the app altogether and into formats and places that give anyone pause. A few content providers have been smart enough to let users move through external links within a browser that is embedded in the app. A few aggregators are focusing only on mobile-friendly content from their various sources, which also helps make the experience of interconnected data a bit more seamless on mobile.
We have already seen the mobile app environment suffer from its own success in the form of clutter. But in the long run, as we expect more PC-like behavior from our phones, apps may prove to be a cumbersome way to access data if they don't learn to talk with each other more seamlessly. The media silos of three-network TV and the print newspaper and magazine experience once defined the media environment, and it built media empires. But the last three decades of fragmentation have shown that audiences want a rapid-fire remote control, countless, interlinked news sources, and artful aggregation. I have to wonder whether media companies love the app for some wrong reasons. Do they represent the next great stage of media consumption -- or a last stand for a creaky silo?