Enter the App Age?
"I was curious," my daughter answers, as if I should be proud of her experimental spirit rather than scold her for wasting $1.99 on an app she really didn't want anyway. Now that she is armed with her SIM-less iPhone and going a little app-crazy, the regular receipts I get from Apple are a laundry list of weird downloads. Grumpy Dads used to prowl around the house with phone bill in hand yelling "Who do we know in Grand Rapids? Who is calling Grand Rapids?" Now I just want to know who is ordering some title called "BloodyXmas" on my iTunes account.
"It's a game. Santa with a chain saw," she explains. "Blood and decapitation involving good little girls and boys. Ho, ho ho!"
"Oh, OK, then. That sounds cool. So long as it is educational and you can hone those serial-killer skills. Any boyfriends get impaled in this game?"
In fact, my daughter's taste in gore notwithstanding, she has become a curious vehicle for content discovery. With 110,000 or more apps in the App Store and 20,000 now in the Adroid Market, we are going to need better ways of surfacing mobile content than we have.
As much as I bemoan the cluttered state of mobile app markets now, the silver lining to all of this may be that distribution and discovery start fragmenting to keep up with the supply of niche-oriented, genuinely creative content.
The best-case scenario for mobile apps is that developers and publishers finally break free from the stores themselves and find different routes to find audiences. In other words, the rise of the app -- nay, the tsunami of apps -- may be the necessity that drives the next stage of mobile content innovation in distribution and long-tail publishing. A fragmented Web had search engines to bring some order to the chaos. What will mobile apps get?
Intelligent mobilistas still disagree over the true fate of the downloadable mobile application model. At last fall's OMMA Mobile in L.A. we ended the show with a panel asking that eternal question, "To App or Not To App." You can see the video of that panel here.
Obviously there is a vibrant mobile environment where mobile Web and carrier portals carry tremendous weight and will continue to for the foreseeable future. In these pages I myself have asked whether people want to navigate content via a mobile Web browser bookmark or app icons. Is this really the form that content consumption and distribution will take?
At FT.com last week, tech columnist Joseph Menn argued that the App Store may prove to be Apple's most important contribution to digital life.
I am starting to wonder if the appeal of the app model is really accelerating because it embodies the shift away from mass media and towards much more fragmented, niche, personalized media experiences. The app ecosystem let loose the creativity of thousands of developers working in both narrow and broad content categories. As many developers now complain, the limitations of the App Store itself make it difficult for many of them to find their audiences. But what happens when the audience gets tools to help them find the right developers?
For instance, the Chorus social networking app lets users share their favorite apps with one another. The company just issued its list of top viral apps within its recommendation network. While there are some usual suspects in there like AccuWeather and Shazam, you also find some surprises -- like the $14.99 Touch DJ atop the list of apps that people actually try to buy. High-profile local-review apps like foursquare aren't even in there -- but a new one on me, Gowalla, is.
As the app economy evolves, I expect to see social sharing play a much bigger role in content distribution. Mobile publishers are going to have to work and think more like Facebook app and site widget makers. Because the overwhelming majority of app discovery happens on the handset, what we really need is for the on-deck stores themselves to incorporate sharing mechanisms that let you see what friends and like-minded mobilitsas are using. Better still, we need your favorite apps to be part of your traveling social profile so friends everywhere can be exposed to the tools you find most important. That is the point at which the mode of distribution for mobile content finally starts catching up with the mode of creation.
It is important that we get app discovery and distribution right, because I suspect Joseph Menn is more on target than he knows. This isn't just about mobile. Apps aren't just changing the game for Apple and AT&T's obvious competitors. There is a bit of a small-is-beautiful ethic also at work in this content as it spreads to other platforms.
Both Nintendo and Sony have embraced the app concept on their DSi and PSP game handhelds, and all for the better. We are seeing more of same on the major game consoles, in social media apps at Facebook, and soon I think on digital cable and IPTV Internet-connected TVs.
The app model makes concrete a post-mass media environment that has been brewing for two generations. From the time cable TV emerged in the '70s we have been marching slowly but surely towards narrow-casting. Rather than see the app as an out-of-the-blue game changer, perhaps we should be looking at it as the natural evolution of media.
Even more to the point, the app model forces content providers to move beyond serving content and instead think about how to turn content into a service. A lot was made over the last few weeks when both Esquire and GQ issued full versions of their recent issues in cool iPhone packages. Both are interesting, but neither seems to be racing to the top of their respective iTune store categories. Instead, rival publisher Rodale has a dozen different apps that turn its best workout and food guide franchises into mobile tools. The company announced today that "Eat This, Not That" is a $4.99 app sitting atop the Health and Fitness paid-app bestseller list.
A fragmented ecosystem demands a fragmented, service-oriented publishing strategy and a fragmented distribution and discovery mechanism. A balanced and more perfect ecology of apps allows like-minded niche audiences to find the content that addresses their needs.
We're not even close to being there yet, but the pain of overstuffed and un-personalized app stores will press us to solve the problem.
I suspect that the app model is and will continue to be so appealing to users because it actually greases the wheels and gives some direction to a movement that is larger than Apple and even larger than mobile. Goodbye, mass media. Hello, my media, our media, your media.