Small phones, mobile computing, innovative disruption and speculation


Apps apps apps

I don’t like getting my content from apps. I use the mobile web instead if I have to, but the majority of my web access is on a laptop with a nice big screen, which means my prejudice doesn’t hurt me too much.

I know that that sets me apart from the majority of smartphone users, but as I said before, my primary web access point isn’t my phone so the limitations of the mobile web that have enabled app culture don’t really hurt me.

I also believe that it is a culture with a short shelf life.

It is a system with an unusual degree of friction in comparison to an easily imagined alternative. The whole native apps versus web apps argument that has been running for years now is largely decided, at any one point in time, by the state of play with regard to mobile technology and the user requirements of said technology. I’m pretty certain the technology will improve faster than our user requirements will complicate.

That easily imagined alternative is pretty straightforward too. A single platform, open and accessible to all, built on open protocols, that can support good enough access to hardware sensors, is served by effective search functionality and doesn’t force content to live within walled gardens.

The web, in other words. Not fit for purpose today (on mobile), but it will be soon enough.

Monetisation possibly remains a challenge but I’m also pretty sure we will eventually learn to pay for the web services that are worth paying for. Meaningful payment paradigms will arrive, the profitless start up model/subsidised media (which is what almost all these apps are) can’t last. We will get over ourselves and move beyond the expectation of free.

Should everything be on the web? No, not at all. For me there is a fuzzy line between functional apps and content apps. The line is fuzzy because some content apps contain some really functional features, and vice versa. Similarly some apps provide function specifically when a network connection is unavailable (pocket, for example). The line is drawn between content and function only because I strongly believe that the effective searchability of content, via search engines or via a surfing schema, and the portability of that content via hyperlinks is the heart of what the web does so well and generates so much of its value. If all our content gets hidden away in silos and walled gardens then it simply won’t be read as much as if it was on the open web. And that would be a big perverse shame.

Why can’t we just publish to the stream? Because it is a weak consumption architecture, it is widely unsearchable (although I suspect this can be changed although we need to move beyond the infinite scroll real quick) and because you don’t own it (don’t build your house on someone else’s land). That’s another whole essay and not the focus of this one.

I’ve felt this way for a long time so I am happy to say that finally some important people are weighing in with concerns in the same area. They aren’t worried about the same specific things as me, but I can live with that if it puts a small dent in the acceleration of app culture.

Chris Dixon recently published this piece calling out the decline of the mobile web. I think he is over stating the issue actually, but only because I think the data doesn’t distinguish effectively between apps that I believe should be web based and those I am ambivalent about. He cites 2 key data sources.

comscore-mobile-users-desktop-users-2014

The ComScore data for total web users vs total mobile users is solid enough, showing that mobile overtook desktop in the early part of this year. Interestingly the graphic also shows that desktop user volumes are still rising, even if the rate of acceleration lags behind mobile. Not many people are taking this on board in the rush to fall in love with the so called post PC era. It’s important because to really understand the second data point, provided by Flurry, you have to look at the very different reasons people are using their mobile computers.

Flurry tells us that the amount of time spent in apps, as a % of time on the phone/internet itself, rose from 80% in 2013 to 86% (so far) in 2014. That’s a lot of time spent in apps at the cost of time spent on the mobile web.

But the more detailed report, shows that that headline number is less impressive than it at first seems. All that time in apps, it turns out isn’t actually at the cost of time spent on the web, not all of it anyway.

time_spent

Of the 86%, 32% is gaming, 9.5% is messaging,  8% is utilities and 4% productivity. That totals 53.5% of total mobile time, and 62% of all time in apps specifically. The fact that gaming now occurs within networked apps on mobile devices, rather than as standalone software on desktops, only tells us that the app universe has grown to include new functionality not historically associated with the desktop web. It tells us that this new functionality has not been removed from the mobile web, that in this case the mobile web has not declined. As I said I agree with the thrust of the post I just think the situation is less acute.

Chris Dixon’s main concern is for the health of his business, he’s a partner at Andreessen Horowitz (a leading tech VC), and he is seeing the rise of 2 great gatekeepers in Google and Apple, the owners of the 2 app stores that matter, as a problematic barrier to innovation, or rather a barrier to the success of innovation (there is clearly no shortage of innovation itself).

He’s not alone Mark Cuban has made a similar set of observations.

Fred Wilson too, although he is heading into an altogether different and more exciting direction again, which I will follow up in a different post (hint, blockchain, distributed consensus and personal data sovereignty). Still this quote from Fred’s post sums up the situation rather well from the VC point of view.

My partner Brad hypothesized that it had something with the rise of native mobile apps as the dominant go to market strategy for large networks in the past four to five years. So Brian pulled out his iPhone and I pulled out my Android and we took at trip through the top 200 apps on our respective app stores. And there were mighty few venture backed businesses that were started in the past three years on those lists. It has gotten harder, not easier, to innovate on the Internet with the smartphone emerging as the platform of choice vs the desktop browser.

The app stores are indeed problems in this regard, I don’t disagree and will leave it to Chris and Mark’s posts to explain why. I am less concerned about this aspect partly because it’s not my game, I don’t make my money funding app building or building apps. But mostly I’m unconcerned because I really believe that (native) app culture has to be an adolescent phase (adolescent in as much as the internet itself is a youngster, not that the people buying and using apps are youngsters).

If I am right and this is a passing phase can we make some meaningful guesses as to what might change along the way?

I’ve been looking at mobile through the eyes of Clay Christensen’s innovators dilemma recently, which I find to be a useful filter for examining the human factors in technology disruptions.

Clearly if mobile is disrupting anything it is disrupting desktop computing, and true to form the mobile computing experience is deeply inferior to that available on the desktop or laptop. There are, actually, lots of technical inferiorities in mobile computing but the one that I want to focus on is the most simple one of all, size, the mobile screen is small.

Small small small small. I don’t think it gets enough attention, this smallness.

If it’s not clear where I’m coming from, small is an inferior experience in many ways, although it is, of course a prerequisite for the kind of mobility we associate with our phones.

Ever wondered why we still call what are actually small computers, phones? Why we continually, semantically place these extremely clever devices in the world of phones and not computers? After all the phone itself is really not very important, it’s a tiny fraction of the overall functionality. Smartphones? That’s the bridge phrasing, still tightly tied to the world of phones not computers. We know they are computers of course, it’s just been easier to drive their adoption through the marketing semantic of telephony rather than computing. It also becomes easier to dismiss their limitations.

Mobile computers actually out date smartphones by decades, they were/still are, called laptops.

Anyway, I digress. For now let’s run with the problems caused by small computers. There are 2 big issues, that manifest in a few different ways. Screen size and the user interface.

Let’s start with screen size (which of course is actually one of the main constraints that hampers the user interface). Screen size is really important for watching TV, or youtube, or Netflix etc

We all have a friend, or 2, that gets very proud of the size of their TV. The development trend is always towards bigger and bigger TV screens. The experience of watching sport, or a movie on a big TV is clearly a lot better than on a small one (and cinema is bigger again again). I don’t need to go on, it’s a straightforward observation.

No-one thinks that the mobile viewing experience is fantastic. We think it’s fantastic that we can watch a movie on our phones (I once watched the first half of Wales v Argentina on a train as I was not able to be at home, I was stoked), but that is very different from thinking it’s a great viewing experience. The tech is impressive, but then so were those little tiny 6 inch by 6 inch black and white portable TV’s that started to appear in the 80’s.

Eventually all TV (all audio visual) content will be delivered over IP protocols. There are already lots of preliminary moves in this area (smart TVs, Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV) and not just from the incumbent TV and internet players. The console gaming industry is also extremely interested in owning TV eyeballs as they fight to remain relevant in the living room. Once we watch all our AV content via internet protocols the hardware in the front room is reduced to a computer and a screen, not a TV and not a gaming console. If the consoles don’t win the fight for the living room they lose the fight with the PC gamers.

Don’t believe me? Watch this highlights reel from the Xbox one launch….TV TV TV TV TV (and a little bit of Halo and COD)

The device that the family watches moving images on will eventually be nothing but a screen. A big dumb screen.

The Smart functionality, the computing functionality, that navigates the protocols to find and deliver the requisite content, well that will be provided by any number of computing devices. The screen will be completely agnostic, an unthinking receptor.

The computer could be your mobile device but it probably won’t be. As much as I have derided the phone part of our smartphones they are increasingly our main form of telephony. As much as it is an attractive thought we are unlikely to want to take our phones effectively offline every time we watch the telly. Even if at some stage mobile works out effective multi-tasking we will still likely keep our personal devices available for personal use.

What about advertising? That’s another area where bigger is just better. I’ve written about this before, all advertising channels trend to larger dominant experiences when they can. We charge more for the full page press ad, the homepage takeover, the enormous poster over the little high street navigational signs telling you that B&Q is around the corner. Advertising craves attention and uses a number of devices to grab/force it. Size is one of the most important.

Mobile is the smallest channel we have ever tried to push advertising into. It won’t end well.

The Flurry report tries to paint a strong picture for mobile advertising, but it’s not doing a very good job, the data just doesn’t help them out. They start with the (sound) idea that ad spend follows consumption ie. where we spend time as consumers of media, is where advertisers buy media in roughly similar proportions. But the only part of the mobile data they present that follows this rule is Facebook, the only real success story in the field of mobile display advertising. The clear winner, as with all things digital is Google, taking away the market with their intention based ad product delivered via search, quite disproportionally.

Media consumption v ads

There are clouds gathering in the Facebook mobile advertising story too. Brands have discovered that it is harder to get content into their followers newsfeeds. The Facebook solution? Buy access to your followers.

That’s a bait and switch. A lot of these brands are significant contributors to the whole Facebook story itself. Every single TV ad, TV program, media columnist or local store that spent money to devote some part of their communication real estate to the line “follow us on Facebook” helped to build the Facebook brand, helped to make it the sticky honeypot that it is today.

And now if you want to leverage those communities, you have to pay again. Ha.

Oh but there’s value in having a loyal active base of followers I hear the acolytes say. Facebook is just the wrapper. Ok, then in that case ask them all for an email address and be guaranteed that 100% of your communications will reach them. Think that will work? Computer says no.

Buying Facebook friends? That’s starting to whiff too.

That leaves Google/search. The only widely implemented current revenue model that has a future on the mobile web. Do you know what would make the Google model even more effective? A bigger screen, and a content universe on the open web.

To be fair the idea that we must pursue pay models is starting to take hold in the communities that matter. This is good news.

Read this piece. It’s as honest a view as you will find within the advertising community and it still doesn’t get that the mobile medium is fundamentally flawed simply because it is small. There is no get out of jail card free for mobile, unless it gets bigger.

Many of the businesses we met have a mobile core. A lot of them make apps providing a subscription service, some manage and analyze big data, and others are designed to improve our health care system. The hitch? None of them rely on advertising to generate revenue. A few years ago, before the rise of mobile, every new startup had a line item on its business plan that assumed some advertising revenue.

What did you think about the Facebook WhatsApp purchase? It can’t have been buying subs, it’s inconceivable that most of the 450m WhatsApp users weren’t already on Facebook. Similarly even though there is an emerging markets theme to the WhatsApp universe, Facebook hasn’t been struggling in pick up adoption in new markets. My money is that Zuckerberg bought a very rare cadre of digital consumer, consumer’s willing to pay for a service that can be found in myriad other places for free. WhatsApp charges $1 a year, a number of commenters have noted this and talked of Zuckerberg purchasing a revenue line. I think they have missed the wood for the trees. That $1 a year, its good money when you have 450m users, for sure. It’s even better when you have nearly a billion and many of them are getting fed up with spammy newsfeeds. What will you do if you get an email that says “Facebook, no ads ever again, $5”. He doesn’t just get money, he also gets to concentrate on re-building the user experience around consumers, not advertisers.

The WhatsApp purchase is the first time I have tipped my metaphorical hat in Zuckerberg’s direction. The rest is morally dubious crud that fell into his lap, this is a decently impressive strategic move. I still won’t be signing up anytime soon though.

Ok. Small. Bad for advertising. What else?

Small devices also have necessarily limited user interfaces. The qwerty keyboard for all of its random derivation works really well. There is no other method that I use that is as flexible and as speedy for transferring words and numbers into a computer.

The touchscreen is impressive though, the device that, for my money, transformed the market via the iPhone. My first thought when I saw one was that I would be able to actually access web pages and make that experience useful through the pinch and zoom functionality. I had a blackberry at the time with the little scroll wheel on the side. Ugh. But even that wonder passed, now that we optimise the mobile web to fit on the small screens as efficiently as possible. No need to pinch and zoom, just scroll up and down, rich consumption experience be damned.

Touchscreens are great, they just aren’t as flexible as a keyboard. As part of an interface suite alongside a keyboard they are brilliant. As an interim interface to make the mobile experience ‘good enough’, again brilliant. As my primary computing interface … no thanks.

When the iPad arrived the creative director at my agency, excited like a small child as he held his tablet for the first time, decided to test its ability as a primary computing interface. He got the IT department to set up a host of VPN’s so that he could access his networked folders via the internet (no storage on the iPad) and then went on a tour of Eastern Europe without his MacBook.

He never did it again. He was honest about his experience, it simply didn’t work.

What about non text creativity? Well, if you can, have a look inside the creative department at an advertising agency. It will be wall to wall Apple. But they will also be the biggest Macs you have ever seen. Huge glorious screens, everywhere.

You can do creative things on a phone, or a tablet but it is not the optimised form factor. It seems silly to even have to type that out.

If small is bad, and if mobile plays out according to Christensen’s theories (and remember this is just speculation), then eventually mobile has to get bigger. Considering that we have already reduced the acceptable size of tablets in favour of enhanced mobility this seems like some claim.

For my money the mobile experience goes broadly in one of two ways.

In both scenarios it becomes the primary home of deeply personal functionality and storage, your phone, your email (which is almost entirely web accessible these days),your messenger tool, maps, documents, music, reminders, life logging tools (how many steps did you step today) as well as trivial (in comparison) entertainments such as the kind of games we play on the commute home.

The fork is derived from what happens with desktop computing. The computing of creation and the computing of deeper better consumption experiences.

We either end up in a world with such cheap access to computing power that everyone has access to both mobile computing and desktop computing, via myriad access points, and the division of labour between those two is derived purely on which platform best suits a task. Each household might have 15 different computers (and I’m not even thinking of wearables at this stage) for 15 different tasks. This is a bit like the world we have today except that the desktop access is much more available and cheap, and not always on a desk.

Alternatively, the mobile platform does mature to become our primary computing device, a part of almost everything we do. This is much more exciting. This is the world of dumb screens that I mentioned earlier. If mobile is to fulfil its promise and become the dominant internet access point then it must transcend its smallness. There are ways this could happen.

We already have prosthetics. Every clip on keyboard for a tablet is a prosthetic.

We already have plugins. Every docking station for a smartphone or a tablet is a plugin.

The quality of these will get better but they still destroy the idea of portability. If you have to haul around all the elements of a laptop in order to have effective access to computing you may as well put your laptop in your bag.

I can see (hold for the sci-fi wishlist) projection solutions, for both keyboards and screens where the keyboard is projected onto a horizontal surface, the screen onto a vertical surface. Or what about augmented and virtual reality? Google glass is a player, although the input interface is a dead duck for full scale computing, but how about an optimised VR headset that isn’t the size of a shoebox? Zuckerberg might have been thinking about the metaverse when he bought Occulus but there will potentially be other interim uses before humanity decides to migrate to the virtual a la “ready player one”, VR could be a part of that.

The more plausible call is a plugin / cheap access model hybrid. Some computing will always be use case. I think it’s likely that a household’s primary AV entertainment screen for example, the big one in the living room, will have its own box, maybe controlled by a mobile interface but configured such that your mobile platform isn’t integral to media consumption. The wider world, though, I think will see dumb screens and intelligent mobile devices working together everywhere. Sit down slot in your mobile, nice big screen, all your files, all your preferences, a proper keyboard (the dumb screen is largely static of course, so it comes with a keyboard) and touchscreen too of course, all in all a nice computing experience.

There are worlds of development to get there of course. Storage, security and battery life among other areas will all need a pick up, but if we have learnt anything since 1974 it’s that computers do get better.

I really woke up to Christensen’s theory with the example of the transistor radio, which was deeply inferior to the big old valve table tops that dominated a family’s front room, often in pride of place. The transistor radio was so poor that the kids that used them needed to tightly align the receivers with the broadcast towers. If you were facing South when you needed to face North, you were only going to get static. But that experience was good enough. Not for mum and dad who still listened to the big radio at home, but for the teenagers this was the only way they could hear the songs they wanted to hear, without adults hovering. All of those limitations were transcended eventually and in the end everyone had their own radio. One in the kitchen, one in every teenager’s room, the car, the garage, portable and not portable. Radio’s eventually got to be everywhere, but none of them were built around valves like those big table top sets.

Mobile computing is a teenager’s first wholly owned computing experience (I’m not talking about owning the hardware). It happens when they want it to, wherever they are. It’s also been many an older person’s first wholly owned computing experience, and it’s certainly been the first truly mobile computing experience for anyone. I might have made the trivial observation that laptops were the first mobile computers, and they were, but you couldn’t pull one out of your pocket to get directions to the supermarket.

Christensen’s theory makes many observations. Among them are that the technology always improves and ends up replacing the incumbent that it originally disrupted. The users of the old technology eventually move to the new technology, the old never wins.

We aren’t going to lose desktop computing though. Or at least we aren’t going lose the need states that are best served by desktop computing, if you want to write a 2000 word essay, your phone is always going to be a painful tool to choose. But you might be able to plug it in to an easily available dumb workstation and write away in comfort instead.

At least let’s hope so.

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3 Comments on “Small phones, mobile computing, innovative disruption and speculation”

  1. Tim M says:

    Very interesting data and points, as usual!

    On apps vs web apps, a tangential point: apart from Pocket’s off-lining functionality, and its ability to facilitate a more efficient separated hunting/consuming strategy, it’s also notable that it strips out all the ads. Would that be tolerated if it was a web app?

    More importantly to your point, you’re tacitly talking about mainstream usage. Older forms of technology never die, they just fade away in the the hands of the old, or more interestingly survive in the few remaining niches where their advantages remain sufficiently strong. You mention agency creative departments and writing essays; I’d add that coders probably make up the largest group with similar needs. But in the big picture, these are definitely minorities.

    Other related thoughts:
    – Windows 8 renders the desktop platform effectively useless for the few people that still need it (in the harshest analysis!)
    – A better interface than the keyboard for prose / speech-like writing will surely arise in time. Probably not speech recognition.
    – Foldable/rollable screens are another wildcard in terms of what our future relationship with screens will look like
    – Convenience beats everything. I watch TV/movies with a tablet by my side. The tablet can broadcast IR so I’ve programmed it with the main functions I use my TV remote for… but the TV remote is still the more convenient way to do those things, so that’s what I use.

    • Hey Tim,

      The pocket / ads question is interesting. The conundrum about ads in pocket, for my money, is just as relevant to the native app version as the web-app version. From the perspective of the original publishers the ads are stripped out in both.

      Of course pocket does have a web-app interface too, well web page more accurately. I use it when I need to get the original URL’s if I am posting them on this blog. But I don’t read the content there, my phone is a more comfortable experience (to your point on convenience). As I write this I have literally, for the first time, realised that I have never accessed the web app on my phone, only on my desktop (that deserves some further introspection).

      Dwell time is the unattended factor with regard to online display advertising, a side effect of the metric scheme that has dominated. So, people who actually spend 10 minutes reading an article in-situ are more likely, consciously or sub-consciously, to be affected by the adverts. But the industry is only now waking up to this. The charge needs to be led by publishers in order to protect the ‘quality’ end of their industry, but they get paid for the useless impressions too, so why would they risk their revenue lines. Classic short term over long, sadly.

      One of the side effects of using pocket is that I do visit the origination sites more than if my only access points for content were via aggregated streams. So right now the publishers are still getting their pennies, it is very rare that i put something in pocket without visiting the origination page (it happens sometimes when I am sent links via email).

      So in short they aren’t up in arms because they are still getting their ad revenue, but they should be up in arms because they losing my dwell time and hence the advertising effectiveness.

      I would love pocket to push a freemium upgrade. There is a whole bunch of functionality I would like to have and be happy to pay for, but mostly I don’t like the uncertainty of the free model for an app that I find to be so important. Paying a fee would give me some rights where currently I have none.

      Regarding your point about mainstream usage, you are right of course the ‘power’ users of classic desktop computing functionality are minorities and the smallness of mobile is certainly good enough for most people today, for the tasks they want to execute. Christensen’s theories though suggest that good enough gets replaced by better. So, whereas I use pocket to read today, even when my laptop is available, and is therefore a function that may be better on my phone regardless (I am reminded of the convenience of the form factor of paperbacks over the larger hardbacks), there are a few mainstream majority functions that are not.

      Email is the first one that comes to mind. When faced with sending an email, even a relatively short one, on my phone or on my laptop, if both are available i will use the laptop every time. The other majority use is audio visual content. If we can transcend small screens while maintaining mobility and I have the option of a bigger screen I will use it whenever I can, whether for sport, movies or 2 minute clips on Youtube.

  2. […] automation, projection. It also shows some of the development directions that I discussed in my recent post about mobile. Its a table, 3 lights, a wall and a computer than can hear and see. Very […]


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