"Boring! Can we fast-forward?" my daughter asks as Joan Baez warbles "Joe Hill" at Woodstock. We are "sharing" the newly released 40th Anniversary DVD of the Woodstock documentary, but she is doing here what she also does when we run my iPod through the car stereo. She heavy-edits Dad's questionable taste. "That was The Band. No, wait, that was Dylan... ."
"Boring. Dad, just because it was made in the ‘60s doesn't mean it has to be good." Generally, my daughter loves the fact that having a media and tech critic for a dad means she was raised with more toys than a kid should have. The day that the first Sony Playstation 2 landed on our doorstep for review is still legendary in her own version of childhood memory. It was the day that every boy in the neighborhood became her new best friend and she learned how to leverage Dad in new and interesting ways. Suddenly I had a use, limited though it may be. And yet, she continues to take issue with the ways that I exercise that technology. She sniffs at my collection of games and rifles through my iTunes and now my iPhone interfaces with barely-guided disdain. "You have the best phone in the world and the worst things on it," she chides.
Of course one of the reasons we share and compare musical tastes with one another is because music is so personal and revealing of ourselves. That my daughter disapproves of my music library and my mobile app collection is not surprising, but a new study from consulting firm Gravity Tank actually makes that exact point. In following mobile app users and doing a preliminary ethnographic study, the firm says, "Apps are a very personal kind of software. Indeed, it's useful to stop thinking about them as software at all, and instead compare them to music. Like music, apps are a social phenomenon -- we love to talk about them, try them, compare them, and share them." And get lambasted about your preferences by snotty kids.
Actually, as we try to understand how mobile apps may represent a different kind of digital media, the comparison to music is helpful. The Gravity Tank folks extend the analogy to suggest that the categorization, production and distribution of apps mimic the music industry (one-hit wonders, garage bands, the market velocity of "charting," etc.). But I think the report's deepest insight is how profoundly personal and productive the app platform may become for users. After all, this is powerful software now unleashed from the desktop into the wild. Gravity Tank sees apps for exercise, finances, shopping and hobbies as "Life Optimizers" that change the notion of productivity, having a real effect on almost every field.
I tend to think of it this way. Years hence, we will think of the PC and the Internet as staging areas for a digital revolution that reached its true potential when it was untethered. The PC era taught us how to deal with computing devices, interfaces, etc. The Internet taught us how powerful data can be and how accessing it can be user-driven. The mobile age takes those fundamentals out into the world. It knits computing power, a massive digital database, and real world and immediate situations together into something that will be powerful in ways we can't quite imagine until we start playing with it more.
When I fire up on my G1 the augmented reality app Wikitude, the potential for interweaving digital, real and personal becomes apparent. This program uses your geo-location and even your facing to determine what the phone cam is viewing. It reaches back to Wikipedia and overlays onto my view of the scene any relevant geo-tagged information. Right now it tags major landmarks and cities in the distance. But imagine if this grows a brain. What happens when it understands my preferences in goods, food, fashion, entertainment? It has the potential to filter the real with the digital in real time in real life. How does that not change how I live?
But with great power comes great personalization. This kind of next-gen augmentation becomes more important to me as it becomes more intimate and specific. This is the challenge before us: not to make great software, but to make media and tools that are flexible enough to adapt to us.
I would go beyond the music metaphor for apps and suggest we have to think about this platform evolving beyond media as we have known it. The software and music analogies are still emanating from a broadcast media culture of products we consume, even if they are parsed down into more specific, less mass-media, niches. What we are aiming for is a concierge model where user needs are participating in the construction of applications that are wholly our own. Not tools for self, but tools of self. Ideally, we want an app on my phone that my daughter won't just dismiss but actively loathe.
"Dad, I really hate your mobile android," she'll be able to say to me someday. "He's locked down the MP3 player. Now I can't get past this block of Joe Cocker. How can you listen to that guy?"