Lowenstein's View: The next-generation app experience


The app store concept has been a critical on-ramp to the mobile data revolution, just as BREW was a decade ago and AOL was to the Web in the 1990s. But with 425,000+ apps, each in his own silo, I am feeling that we are nearing "app overload." And all these apps--especially the "long tail" apps--are tough to manage on and across devices. In addition, they vary wildly in quality, level of "freshness" and so on. Don't get me wrong--I love my apps the same as the next guy. But given the limitations of the existing framework, and other tools/capabilities becoming rapidly available, it's time to be thinking about an evolved, more semantic mobile content experience.

There are three themes I would like to explore here:

1.  Mobile Mashup

With HTML5, cloud services and app store "overload," I think we will see the beginning of a more integrated, dynamic content view. This will mean blurring the lines between "apps" and "mobile Web," especially for major content brands. Accessing ESPN or Netflix might be through some sort of integrated app/Web view, rather than a self-contained application specific to a device. We also are going to need this capability if content is going to be shared across multiple devices--say a PC, tablet and smartphone. I've always believed, for example, that the Android Market is a placeholder for Google. Over time, I expect them to migrate users toward a more Web and cloud-centric experience. Apps will become thin clients or widgets, which act as the launch pad or gateway into content.

2.  Screen and Connectivity Sensitivity

A year from now, we will be even deeper into a multi-device world--a cornucopia of smartphones, tablets of different sizes, mobile-enabled laptops and Chromebooks, and other myriad connected devices. We'll also be in a more dynamic mix of Wi-Fi, 3G, and 4G network connectivity. It's time to start thinking about what the content experience will look like across these disparate devices and networks.

Most mobile apps today are designed for a phone or a tablet, but not both. Often, the user has to buy two different versions of the application for each "screen"--more, if the Mac "App Store" is considered. It's getting messy. Apple's iCloud will address some of this, but in its initial stage it's really about storage and sharing.

As apps migrate to more of a Web and cloud-based framework, we can start thinking about how content delivery and display become more dynamic. By this, I mean:

  • Adapting for different types of devices and screens. Instead of having to buy the app multiple times, you buy it once, and the content is optimized for the particular device's screen size, resolution, data input capabilities and so on. An early example of this is Mac OS X Lion, which has added some of the "touch" elements of the iPad. The UI on certain applications "adjusts," depending on whether you are using a mouse or a track pad.

  • Adjusting for network context. A year from now, 4G networks will be more widespread but will still not have the same footprint as 3G. Plus, there will be more enhanced Wi-Fi networks in densely populated, high-traffic areas. Media-rich content that relies on streaming or Internet connectivity (rather than already downloaded onto a device) should be more sensitive to the real-time network experience. An example: CNN recently announced availability of live streaming on the Web from any connected mobile device. That CNN experience should be optimized for my given network connectivity situation of the moment. Wi-Fi or 4G? Open up the throttle. Good 3G signal? Ratchet it back a little. Lower-end of 3G or poor signal? Disable the video.

Usage pricing is another governor here, as we deal with the twin dynamic of metered pricing and more rich media. There needs to be an effective feedback loop and an adjustment of what content is delivered, based on a user's pricing plan, tolerance for overage, and operator "throttling" policies.

3.   Pull Data Across Applications

Remember the words "intelligent agent?" Well, we might see some examples of that with applications. Let's look at today's world from a mobile device loaded with apps. Say you're planning a trip. You have to go to Expedia to book a flight, Trip Advisor to see hotel reviews, Hertz to book a car, your weather app to check the forecast, Yelp for information and reviews on local restaurants, Open Table to book one, Google Maps for directions, your preferred app for movies, music or other local goings-on and MapMyRun for ideas on where to go running in the morning. All separate, non-integrated apps or sites covering some of your basic information requirements for a trip. The information is all there--it just takes a lot of work to get to it.

What if this was all a little more integrated and dynamic, reaching across apps or sites bookmarked, to deliver a much more customized, personalized and contextualized experience. As soon as you've booked your flight, up comes a list of options for finding hotel/car/restaurant listings, reviews and the ability to book. Then, instead of separate apps for various forms of entertainment or recreation a "what would you like to do," with categories for music, movies, running and so on. Content would be pulled from a variety of places, rather than requiring the user to pop in and out of multiple apps - perhaps through "uber apps" for certain categories or functions, such as travel.

There are some early examples of this. Some of the local event sites pull from disparate Web sources but not other apps. And Kayak is basically an aggregation of various travel Web sites. Apple is rumored to be working on an "agent" capability, via a re-launched Siri and a much richer use of voice navigation capabilities and some text-to-speech elements. For the historians among us, this hearkens back to a road map that General Magic laid out in 1995.

This clearly does not happen overnight, but I predict that the discussion about a more semantic mobile app/web experience will gain momentum over the next year.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem.  Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.