Commentary

Mobility 1.5

At last week's OMMA Global Mobile Insider track, PCWorld/Macworld's head of mobile Ulla McGee reiterated that you have to iterate. On the panel discussion about app development for publishers, it was apparent that the most advanced content providers have gotten the message about how much like traditional publishing this platform really is. The audience needs to be kept interested. Downloaded apps are easily forgotten. Even minor tweaks and updates can bring your app back into someone's update column in their app store to remind them you are still there.

Apps are an ongoing process of publishing. In fact, I would argue that mobile usage, mobility itself, is a work in progress that requires the collaboration of user and maker. One of the unanticipated consequence of the app platform is that it gives publishers and users a more efficient way to discover from one another what mobility really is all about.

Iteration is the name of the game, but I have to admit that the disciplines of media criticism have not themselves accommodated the model. We tend to review an app once and forget it, even as the best apps continue to evolve. And so, taking up Ulla's message, I decided to revisit a number of apps that have enjoyed upgrades of late to see what the incremental improvements hath wrought.

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Netflix deployed a major facelift in its iPad and iPhone apps in recent weeks but did so without a version update. Since the video streaming company pulls much of its content dynamically from the Web, its interface too could be upgraded on the fly. The new version underscores how the company model has moved away from physical DVD mailings to digital delivery. My DVD queue is no longer present in the app, just my Watch Instantly line-up. Netflix has simplified the interface and gone with a wall of film box covers. In some ways the interface seems to have taken some cues from the set-top consoles where recommendations based on prior viewing habits seem to lead the offerings. The first iteration of Netflix on iOS tried to replicate the functionality of the Web site. This version brings mobility into sharper focus, layering on personalization.

Also important to this update is speed. Frankly, the initial iPad version of Netflix was painful to use. Good thing the company has such a good content offering. But the sluggish screen updating always made me think twice before even starting the thing. Smarter caching now makes the experience much snappier - no small thing when a user is hovering over a choice of icons to tap.

Personalization is also the hallmark of Best Buy's current app. The program on iPhone now loads into my last viewed item and offers a lateral scroll of recommendations off of that product. A prominent button on the splash page also lets you drop into your own browsing history. Clearly, Best Buy is starting to map its app design more along the lines of shopping behaviors rather than against the abstract notion of what a branded app should do. I know that when I am making a product buy in the big box category, it requires a longer decision-making process that usually involves multiple returns to a retailer's digital resources. Best Buy has wisely moved beyond an "app presence" to offer a genuine buying tool.

The company is also pressing the QR code feature hard in this app release. Best Buy stores now have QR codes for most items on every shelf, as well as stand-ups throughout the store explaining their use. Their mobile product comparison tool is hands down among the best in-store mobile tools I have seen. A good app provides utility. A great app answers an important question. In this case, the comparison engine in the Best Buy app is the solution to the most common problem consumers have perusing store shelves: discerning the difference among models.

I am less convinced that the latest fad among media companies publishing to the iPad is worthwhile. The tiers of swipe-able stories in the Huffington Post, NPR and Slate apps feels like touchability taken a bit too far. Each of the apps, in its own way, arranges the major sections vertically and then lets the user laterally swipe through thumbnails of its main stories. I may be alone in this, but I don't find the approach an efficient or appealing way to organize content. In the abstract it seems like a smart way to give quick and efficient access to stories, but visually it seems more disorienting than organized - more like a mess of one-armed bandit wheels. HuffPo tries to account for this by letting the user lock the tiers so you advance all at once. This helps, but I would be more interested in seeing content providers follow Best Buy and Netflix's lead and turn to personalization.

Personalizing media content has always been a thorny issue for publishers. Few media companies are fully willing to give up their magisterial tradition of setting reader's agendas. Too heavy-handed a personalization not only robs publishers of the ability to do their editorial jobs of triaging content, but it robs the user of serendipitous discovery. In the decade and a half I have covered digital media, I have seen countless models for blending top-down and user-up modes executions of personalization. Few models have caught on. But it seems to me mobile platforms should reintroduce the problem of personalization and force publishers to think harder about it.

Finally, one app that continues to impress me with its persistent and well-designed iterative strategy is Where. This local information app keeps expanding its reach into new content so that now it is an excellent one-stop shop for user reviews, movie times, coupons and even events. Every listing has a link to call or get directions, and you can create lists of favorites easily. I wish there were more review content, and some of the items take too much clicking to get to the meat of things. But overall, it is making the case for more consolidation of content on mobile platforms. Do I really need and want a local check-in app, a recommendation app, or a coupon app?

These versions of maturing apps suggest that the next evolution of mobile content has to be towards greater personalization and contouring of experiences. The point about mobile that I keep "iterating" is that the platform is a series of moving targets: technology, publishers and users. Publishers are developing content for audiences who themselves are only discovering what they want a mobile platform to do for them. None of the moving pieces, tech, media or usage patterns, is anywhere near maturity yet. This is where the iterative process becomes really interesting, as publishers respond to usage patterns and user and maker start defining what mobility means.

2 comments about "Mobility 1.5 ".
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  1. Annette Tonti from MoFuse, Inc, March 8, 2011 at 4:22 p.m.

    Great post. Iteration in mobile is extremely important - we also agree that personalization is important next step. Some marketers we work with are moving in that direction now. However we work in the Mobile Web world, we don't think that Apps are the only way to go when offering mobile experiences to your customers. The Mobile Web gives publishers and marketers a far less expensive (and easier) platform on which to iterate. We don't think it is an "either or" conversation, I'm merely pointing out the mobile web is not mentioned in your post, and it is a growing, important aspect of any mobile strategy.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, March 8, 2011 at 5:14 p.m.

    Annette, point taken. Mobile Web is important, although the app stores have that all-important little mechanism of being able to push to users notice of an update. For me at least that helps apps float back to the surface of my awareness.

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