Fixing The Internet... One Mobile App At A Time

After months of gyrations, negotiations, intimations and false starts, my daughter finally landed on my door with her new cell phone. "It's a BlackBerry," she announced. Well, she's almost landed. "I have a month to bring it back."  Her tone was tepid at best. Why a 17-year-old has a BlackBerry was a bit beyond me, but clearly there was a ton of mother-daughter psycho-dynamics behind this one. "Mom wanted me to get it. She has one too."  

 I may be just another dumb Dad, but even I know better than to dive into these waters. This is one of those cases where you try to play the hero and save the flailing damsels in the lake, only to end up being the one drowned on the muddy bottom. Nope. Not me.

"I don't think you are going to see many cool apps in there," I warn. Okay, maybe I am not that smart. But after all, she had been campaigning for both the iPhone and the DROID with me.

She gives me the deck tour of the Storm 2 device, claiming to like the tactile feedback on this touch screen better than the useless keyboard on the DROID. She's rationalizing as fast as she can. "It has Facebook and AIM. That is what I need. I am not that interested in apps." Except of course when she gets her hands on my iPhone, which she will tinker with until the battery dies. "Here, I think you need to recharge," she usually says unapologetically.

Ultimately, she is right, of course. For her, social media is the point both of a mobile phone and even a laptop. Last weekend she didn't even crack open her laptop once. The BlackBerry was enough. Not that we needed confirmation of this, but comScore reported yesterday that Facebook access via mobile browsers has increased 112% in the past year, and now more than 30% of smart phone users are accessing social networks via mobile browsers.

I suspect that Facebook and Twitter use (up 347% last year on phones) is just a leading indicator of a tipping point that will surprise some content providers sooner rather than later. In important categories of use, the mobile experience is quickly becoming better than the Web experience. For social media in particular, but also in other categories, the mobile versions are less cluttered, more focused on critical functionality, and even better integrated with other pieces of your communications chores like email and IM. I think by this time next year we will be discussing how the learnings from development of mobile apps and sites are being incorporated into Web strategies.

There are already four or five things my handheld does better than my desktop:

Push news. I have been alerted to almost every major and minor breaking news story in the past six months via my SMS or Apple App alerts from CNN and AP. There is no equivalent push mechanism available on the desktop without some silly configuration or extra software download. To be sure, the mobile alert usually drives me to the Web when the story really interests me, but mobile has achieved a real-time push content ecosystem that the Web has aspired to since the days of kludgy memory resident programs that crashed all of our systems.

Weather. My Desktop now has an auxiliary screen, mobile, to which I offload certain habitual look-ups. Most of the major weather brands have apps or mobile sites that give me localized information and even radar views without the clutter and over-blown interfaces on their main pages. I already suspect that this is having an effect on their Web design.'s personalized weather page seems to me less busy and more compact nowadays, closer to the app design. 

Baseball. I am a total sports ignoramus, but even I know that MLB's At Bat app at $14.99 is a staggering bargain and a beautifully crafted digital rendering of the sport that makes you wish it were a Desktop widget as well. Mobile design forces us to find core functionality and have the daring to jettison a lot of the features that make Web site interfaces so annoyingly overdone.

Personalization. Mobile demonstrates how a little goes a long way. Mobile designers of customizable apps tell me that more mobile users will take the time to personalize the experience than Web users. Generally, personalization occurs once when they first use an app, but it makes a difference. In Fluent News and CNN mobile, for instance, I have just one or two keywords filtering items into a special section, and I consult it almost every time I load the app.

Getting people to personalize digital content has been eluding designers for over a decade, and mobile offers them the ability to show personalized benefits more clearly. I think this is the platform that will help teach us how to leverage personalization back on the desktop.

Second-screening. I am about to join my daughter in leaving the laptop off when the TV is on. Who needs it? If I have to look up a TV schedule or consult a movie time, my i.TV, TVGuide and Fandango mobile apps are faster and more effective than browser versions. TLC, AMC, and TCM all have exceptional apps that are more efficient than their Web sites, so I can find additional show times and details about the show faster.

A glimpse of the second-screen future is already here in the Pocket BLU app that interacts with my Blu-ray disc player. Coverage is still very limited, but with some BD discs, viewing the film will unlock new material on the app, and I can control the player with my phone. Extend that connectivity to a set-top box, where the current TV show is interacting with your mobile screen, and we are in another world. Who even needs the long overdue "interactive TV" technologies if you have a smartphone tethered to a set-top box?

Ad integration. Some of the sponsored apps I have seen in recent months are hands down more effective in tying an advertiser's brand to valued content than anything I see on the Web. The integration of Knorr recipes in the Woman's Day recipe app, the share of voice Universal gets in the free version of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit app, Unilever's total ownership of a new app from Star magazine, and L'Oreal's presence as a "Gift Bag"  in Vanity Fair Hollywood are prime examples. I didn't even have to look up those sponsors and the apps to recall that the brands were so deeply associated with the content. Getting the sponsor closer to the content, more integrated conceptually with the media brand, and with full share of voice, are all concepts that Web marketers still talk about longingly.

There are more instances, of course, and feel free to add your own below. But I think the real tipping point of mobile is not going to be a tipping point of critical mass so much as a tipping of preferences. The best hope for the Web is that it takes some lessons from mobile. The apps will lead us.

"Can I see your iPhone for a sec?" my BlackBerry-toting teen asks. "You still have The Sims on there?"

4 comments about "Fixing The Internet... One Mobile App At A Time".
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  1. Brian Moore from Varolii Communications, March 4, 2010 at 3:19 p.m.

    From today's NetBanker blog comes this observation:

    "The key to making mobile a profitable channel is to make the user experience BETTER than online. And USAA is the only U.S. financial institution doing that today."

    Now I only wish they'd do it on a Blackberry.


  2. David Lawson from 5th Finger, March 4, 2010 at 4:22 p.m.

    Right on Steve- its funny to see the behaviors that people more comfortable with mobile are changing. At a recent conference, Tracy Benson of Best Buy was sharing how they can regularly see people buying computers on their mobile phones, very possibly from in front of their computer. Later that day I spoke with a good guy from "a large PC manufacturer" about the role they see m-commerce playing in their future and he indicated they are not exploring m-commerce at all (I got the sense they aren't encouraging it). Instead, they are looking at customer service enhancements via mobile for when their PCs lose connectivity. Interesting to get that perspective and see the teeter beginning to totter.

  3. Kelly Mcivor from Atomic Mobile, March 4, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.

    Hey Steve - I teach a class on mobile media at the U of Wash and we recently had a geust lecuturer that shared the surprising results of some focus group research. The teens that they surveyed were very clearly in favor of Blackberry (assuming they couldn't have an iPhone) because of the BBM, the Blackberry Messaging service where messages are essentially free. Ok, sure, these were teens in a focus group but it may explain your daughter's behaviour.

  4. Steve Smith from Mediapost, March 5, 2010 at 8:52 a.m.

    @Brian: couldn't agree more with that sentiment.

    @David: I think all PC makers and Web publishers risk missing an incredible opportunity to leverage the handset as a second screen and a push mechanism that is unavilable to them online.

    @Kelly: Nothing to my knowledge fully explains my daughter's behavior to me - which is exactly the way she likes it.

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