I was complaining last week that Yahoo's new suite of apps, especially its flagship iOS app, is woefully fragmented and uninspired. I can't even get the weather on their main app anymore. The thing wants to bounce me into a whole series of four or five different apps for every vertical function, even the formerly central Yahoo mail and finance data. I just don’t get it.
The four or five apps that Yahoo wants me to install just underscore the ways in which an app ecosystem sacrifices the seamless interconnectivity, search and easy linkage that helped build the Web. It really seems to me that there is a Version 2.0 of the app infrastructure waiting to be invented in which these once-cute icons of siloed functionality and content move to a more interconnected and discoverable form.
Google slowly but surely is moving in this direction. With an update to its iOS Gmail app yesterday, the company is now knitting together functionality and linkage among its own suite of apps. Although Google has had a very strong Chrome browser and its legendary maps in app form on the Apple platform for many months, they still suffered under the tyranny of Apple’s control of the default linkage for URLs and addresses to its own Safari browser and troubled map app. With the new Gmail app, Google allows the user to toggle on options to use Chrome, Google Maps and YouTube apps if they are installed on the iOS device.
In practice, the interconnectivity is actually more nuanced in some cases than simply kicking the user over to another app. When I click a URL in the Gmail app it not only opens the destination in Chrome, but offers a back-up button back to Gmail.
Google is playing it very smart on iOS of late. It is leveraging its strongest suit -- its hold on our desktop behaviors and information -- to get a wedge onto Apple’s devices. I find myself using Chrome on iPad more and more often simply because the synchronization with my desktop browsing is so seamless. New bookmarks on one just appear on the other, and I can seamlessly pull up browsing histories across screens.
We are seeing in Facebook Home and now Google’s Gmail update a new front in the mobile OS wars as individual content providers try to create their own sub-OSes for themselves. A recent set of Google TV ads pretty much makes this point as well. My own feeling is that Google has a better claim on me across screens than does Facebook. And ultimately I don’t think users are ever as wedded to corporate brands as the companies believe them to be. Google's approach of simply making cross-screen life a little easier within their products than Apple does is the best promotion.
In general, we consumers have been ahead of the mobile operating systems in our multi-screen behaviors. Even before smartphones arrived, I recall many publishers telling me in the mid-2000s how surprised they were that so many “WAP” visitors and feature phone app users accessed the email-this function to send themselves an article. From early on in the mobile revolution people have been jerry-rigging ways of pushing content across screens.
The operating systems have yet to catch up to our own day-long dance across screens to build in the core functions that make this jig easier. Obviously, apps like Evernote, Netflix and others rose to popularity precisely because they offered services that transcended and made somewhat irrelevant the specific screen that a person was using at any given time.
What is interesting and beneficial to the multi-device world is that users and operating systems are now straining against the limits of the gadgets we coveted only a few years ago. There is a real opportunity here for creative innovation that defines the next stage of mobility.