Hardware in flux as “smart-everything” vision unfolds
Mobile apps are innumerable and integrated into almost all aspects of our daily lives. They have already changed computing in staggering ways, but there’s room for more innovation on a similar scale.
A short history of app domination
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the beginning there was the candybar phone. On it, the only things resembling apps were Calculator, Snake and a soccer thing.
Then there were the early smartphones. They were cool because you could connect to the Internet, do basic office tasks and try out the first rudimentary apps. We chose phones because they featured Facebook, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS or FM radio.
After that came the current generation of smartphones – the BlackBerrys and iPhones and Androids – all gathering cult followings with iconic designs, hardware innovation and a sizeable collection of apps.
But gradually, the apps proliferated and got more exciting, finally taking on greater significance than the hardware itself. Helped by the success of Android tablets and the broad adoption of iTunes-like content distribution channels, apps became a content and computing platform of their own, existing independently from phone and tablet hardware.
Whereas before we were beholden to the device maker to choose what apps we could have, mobile consumers today enjoy a far more customisable experience. Two identical phones purchased by two different people can over time become vastly different instruments in the hands of their owners, depending solely on their choice of apps.
Thus apps have become a threat to mobile hardware. Device manufacturers have responded in various ways, which has influenced the fate of devices on the whole.
A case in point is the goings-on of the current month. September is smartphone month, with announcements from Samsung, Apple, Motorola and Nokia, but the following remarks have significance for tablets too.
Apple, the leading smart device manufacturer, may have missed a crucial trick when it failed to include near-field communications with iOS 6 in its recent iPhone 5 launch. NFC would have enabled Apple users, at least, to make payments to each other. As a result all sorts of wags are saying smartphones are becoming boring. And it happened overnight. In the blink of an eye, Apple appears to be under pressure to innovate again or lose its star power.
The jury is out whether the Android community can take the game away from Apple with great phones like the Samsung Galaxy S3, the Nokia Lumia 920 or the HTC One X. But even with innovation, hardware remains under threat.
Sometimes hardware is not enough
The common threat to these platforms, and the secret to their continued relevance – is apps. Apps are the new seats of innovation, and as they continue to proliferate and blaze new trails, they will find the appropriate hardware platforms and drag them along in their wake.
The best-case scenario for phone and tablet makers is to seek continued relevance in broad computing and communications tasks, as increasingly diverse hardware platforms take their place around the app ecosystem.
Or they can pursue restrictive business models and seek to protect their existing revenue stream, thus risking total irrelevance, or depend on unstinting innovation, and retain limited niche importance as other, more purpose-suited hardware, increasingly edges them out.
Stay close to the apps
The cautionary tale doesn’t end there. New hardware platforms, for example smart devices such as fridges, TVs, cars, gaming consoles and the like, would be well advised to note the crucial role of apps for their uptake.
And other (non-hardware) players in the app and surrounding ecosystem, like developers, app stores and the mobile and social networks, can also benefit from support and integration with apps, and thus ensure they will play a role in the user device personalisation future.
- Hardware vendors and app stores must not restrict users’ access to apps – their role is to manage, reward, quality-control and ultimately foster a strong app ecosystem. The very innovative among them can even give new direction, such as Google with augmented reality.
- In addition, hardware platforms should throw open distribution to mobile networks, which are increasingly spoilt for choice with the strength of Android.
- Developers must stay close to the wants, needs, and issues of users, delivering apps on all platforms. They must seek a basis for global dominance, or risk being a flash in the pan.
- Mobile networks must move on from delivering feature phones to incentivising their own developer ecosystems.
- Social networks must continue to work on mobile app and customer integration.
It begins with apps
It’s obvious that change in mobility is constant and shoots off in many directions at once. For now, apps hold all the aces.