After the App Frenzy... A New Medium
Content consultancy Outsell released research earlier this month confirming that people are starting to "curate" their apps more as the young platform wears on us. In a survey of affluent and frequent mobile consumers, the firm discovered that the group had over 30 apps on their handsets but use only 13% of them daily. Of the 30.9 apps owned by the group, 8.5 go unused entirely, 8.5 are seldom used, 8.7 are used weekly, and only 5.2 are used daily.
This experience is training us to check the download impulse, Outsell suggests. That same group says that in the last six months it had downloaded 17.5 new apps, but in the next six months intended to download 20% less. More interesting is how past app experiences shifted attitude towards paid mobile content. In the past six months, 2.9 apps of the downloaded apps were paid content. And even though the group intended to download fewer apps in the near future, the number of paid apps they intended to buy rose to 3.1.
Outsell CEO Anthea Stratigos summed it up well in a statement accompanying the research. "Consumers are taking their offline habits online," she said. "We have a handful of magazines on our coffee table, and our cable channels are chock-full of bundles but we manage to watch the few that matter. Online, with thousands of search results, we focus on 'the first page.' Users narrow their choices when given so many options, and this will play out in apps one the app frenzy matures."
I would go further and say that the increased interest in paid apps in this study also suggests that people are looking to narrow and deepen their app experiences. I would love to see research on how time spent with each app changes over time and as users triage their own mobile usage down to fewer selections. I can only speculate about these numbers, but I suspect that the increased preference for paid apps suggests that users are looking for richer and ongoing experiences from their apps and become less entranced by the many drive-by tchotchkes that a universe of hundreds of thousands of apps invites.
If our app tastes evolve over time, then we may be looking for deeper rather than more apps. We are starting to see some developers and start-ups play with serialized app programming that appeals to that tighter, deeper attention span. Real Weather Girls is a blend of weather coverage, reality programming, and cheesecake that came to the iPhone last week. A dozen women scattered across major cities in the U.S. and Britain offer video excerpts from their lives in each city. So far as I can tell, they don't actually deliver weather reports so much as vidblog their lives and solicit comments from viewers. There seems to be a lot of late-night partying recounted and beach visits. Oops, did I get drunk in a bikini again?
The adolescent appeal of the content aside, Real Weather Girls is an interesting exercise in blending and bending genres (you do get the local weather, after all) and turning the utilitarian app into an ongoing, programmed interactive entertainment experience.
The serialized multimedia novel experience is starting to make its way to smart phones as well. IDrakula ($1.99) is an app version of the great Bram Stoker novel. It retells the "Dracula" tale in a daily dose of text messages, Web links and voice messages among the main characters. This patchwork experience not only creates verisimilitude, but actually plays off of some of the epistolary and multimedia scrapbooking techniques that Stoker himself used in the original novel.
It takes some persistence to keep up with the app. I think for many people it may be the kind of digital storytelling that is more admirable in theory than it is rewarding and involving in practice. Nevertheless, like Real Weather girls, it is an app that aspires to be something more.
If digital reality shows, vidblogs of beautiful women and multimedia serialized novels seem a bit familiar, it is because we have seen them before. The first decade of the Web was littered with new narrative models that never grabbed an audience or were ahead of the broadband penetration curve or just invited Web users to lean back at a time when Web habits still were lean-in. Anyone remember "The Spot" multimedia soap opera that was made of content fragments from diverse characters?
At the dawn of every new medium, analysts are fond of resuscitating Marshall McLuhan's old insight that we graft the last successful media formats onto the new one until the nascent platform finds its own voice. Yes, but it runs deeper than that. New media also become occasions for creative minds to revive formats that didn't work especially well on previous platforms or that died generations ago. Early television leaped back to vaudeville to find its stars or to leverage the unique TV qualities of entertainers that had modest or no success in film, like Milton Berle, Phil Silvers and Lucille Ball.
For media historians like me, this is the good part in a medium's evolution - when fresh ideas come from every angle and even every previous period in media. This is the time before conventions are set, when creativity trumps big business and high stakes.
When it comes to apps, we are in the silent film era before "Birth of a Nation," the TV testing days before Lucy. Those were the periods in media history when the early artists discovered what the frame could and could not handle, what kinds of actions and comedy worked here, that new levels of intimate address were possible in close-ups or the three-camera breakdown of a living-room family dynamic. This is when new art is born. Something important is going to happen here, and we don't even have a clue yet what it will look like.