#digiday - The Future of Apps

One of the panels at Digiday Social was "Is The App The Future of Social? . Perhaps it would have been better named, "What is the future of apps?"

Adam Broitman, Founder and Ringleader of Circ.us said that 80% of free apps that get downloaded do not get used on the second day, and only 5% are still in use 30 days later. He compared apps to the early days of AOL. Apps are convenient, but eventually, people want more open systems.

As an innovator/early adopter with a Nokia N900, a cellphone that is great for application developers that want to work with open source software, I am an outlier. I have a little over 100 apps loaded on my phone. They are all free apps and I use many of them very frequently.

On the other hand, every day I get several pitches for the latest new iPhone app. With over 250,000 application in the app store, it is hard to get noticed, and I suspect there are a lot of apps that are either duplicates or simply wastes of time.

I regularly respond to these pitches asking if there are plans to make the apps available on Android, Blackberry, Maemo/Meego, or as HTML5. Typically, the response is that something like that is in the works.

This illustrates two issues that apps developers need to face: cross platform development and apps discovery.

Right now, there are two major apps stores, one for the iPhone and one for Android. There are plenty of other apps stores around. An article in Rethink Wireless about HTC's latest move mentions

Verizon Wireless... is divorcing its Android V Cast Apps storefront from the generic Android Market and preloading its own apps storefront.

Another Rethink Wireless article talks about Nokia and Intel showing off updated app stores.

Purnima Kochikar, VP for Forum Nokia, the developer community, was pushing the line that she was "empowering developers, not chasing app store numbers".

The article talks a little bit about the Intel AppUp Center and mentions Meego in passing. It doesn't get into the issue of repositories that Maemo and Meego developers argue about. Yet the architecture of Maemo and Meego facilitate anyone to set up their own repository or app store.

The Nokia and Intel strategy is focused on Qt, a cross-platform application and user interface framework. The idea is that you can build an application in Qt and then compile it to run on any device that supports Qt. This is a great idea and if Broitman is right might be some of the direction that apps development is heading, except that iPhone and Android are not set up well for Qt applications yet.

There is one project that looks really interesting. It is Android Lighthouse which allows you to compile and package Qt applications for Android. I don't have an Android phone to play with right now, so I haven't tried it out, but it looks really promising.

There is also the Nitdroid project to run Android on the Nokia tablets, like the N900. I may install that at some point, but it repartitions the whole microSD card, so I'm waiting for a chance to explore this in more detail. When I have time to really explore it, I just might build some Qt apps to run on my N900 and see if I can get them to run under Maemo, Mer, Meego, and Nitdroid.

While I like Qt as a potential cross platform development tool, others at the conference suggested that ultimately everything will move to HTML5. I see several issues with this. Applications need to access information that might not be available to HTML5. Simple location information from a GPS might be available, but some of the more interesting bits of location information, such as the altitude might not be accessible. Things like the cameras, the accelerometer, the battery usage, or other tidbits of information from the mobile device might also not be available. In addition, I am concerned that HTML5 and Javascript or AJAX may run much more slowly that compiled Qt applications.

One application that I use quite a bit is Dorian, an eBook reader for the N900. I am reading eBooks that are stored on the N900. It is true that using lighttpd, or the file: protocol, I could make the books available online to an HTML5 application, but that seems like overkill. Things like books, music, pictures and video may be best accessed directly from the device.

Back to the issue of discovery, this is a key issue, not only for apps, but for many things people search for on the Internet. I hope to write more about the broader discovery issue soon. One panelist suggested that if discovery of apps is an issue, you need better control over the app stores. Yet Apple's control over its app store does not seem to have helped. Instead, it seems like you need better discovery mechanisms.

This takes us back to Broitman's comment about Apps being like AOL. As Google and Yahoo made it easier for people to discover the content they wanted online, they left the walled gardens of AOL and more people started creating webpages outside of AOL. It is reasonable to expect something similar will happen as it becomes easier to create new apps and search more locations for apps.

Apps should be an important part of marketers' strategies. For the time being, they might be able to get away with staying in the wall gardens of Apple. However, the smart players will explore cross platform apps and always fall back to an HTML5 page for mobile devices that don't support their apps.

So, if you are pitching a cool new app to me, be prepared for my question about cross platform capabilities, and know that I'm unlikely to write about it unless it runs on the N900 or has an HTML5 page.

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