CHICAGO — Mobile application developers need to focus on delivering one kind of program if they hope to rise above the noise generated by their thousands of peers, according to an analyst at the recent Gartner Wireless & Mobile Summit here. Van Baker, a Gartner research vice president, told the crowd that the only applications to see success will be those that bring consumers quick, actionable information that can be scanned and viewed quickly. That, he added, means the days are numbered for the mobile Web browser.
"As smartphones explode in popularity, handset makers are rushing to incorporate full browsers into their devices, assuming the PC model of Internet access will prevail," Baker told attendees. "They are dead wrong." Rather than using smartphones the same way they would a PC, he said, users want information that is "decision-centric" -- information that helps the user make choices during the course of the day, the kind that answers who, what, when, and where questions. Typical mobile customers aren't interested in running through several data-rich screens to find information, he added. They want just small bits of information (e.g., the nearest coffee shop, a consumer review of a restaurant) to help them make an immediate decision.
In the morning, according to Baker, a mobile consumer may look at maps, headlines, weather, and similar information; at midday, information about a place to eat; and near the end of the day, details on shows, clubs, or other nighttime spots. "The information desired is dependent on where the consumer is [and] on what time it is during the day or evening," he said. "Outside the location and time frame, the information has minimal utility and, therefore, little value to the consumer.
Web access on that level requires only a simple browser, Baker said. Beyond that, a mobile device only needs to able to provide the consumer with an on-device portal (ODP), a platform that presents a portfolio of applications. The ODP provides multiple launch points -- that is, links -- to the consumer on one screen. Unlike the typical browser, the ODP scales for the specific mobile device, requires less text entry, and provides faster results, according to Baker. "Device variations alone dictate custom applications," he added. "There will be no significant consolidation of phone [operating systems] any time soon. So usage behavior [on mobile devices] mandates a simple user interface and processes."
Baker also noted that designing or purchasing these mobile applications is relatively inexpensive -- as evidenced by the rapidly growing number of manufacturers and retailers that are reaching out to consumers in that manner. "The success of this approach is evident in the Apple App Store and the Android Marketplace," he said. In just six months, 15,000 applications were developed for the iPhone, leading to 500 million downloads. (Apple recently announced that its marketplace had reached the 25,000-application milestone.) Baker expects the Android marketplace to have a similar development curve; Microsoft is planning its own competing application marketplace; and Research in Motion has already announced an application store for its BlackBerry handheld.
"The ODP-and-application approach may render plug-ins irrelevant," Baker added. But applications will only work if they provide good value to the consumers. As an example, Baker noted that Audi developed one of the first iPhone applications -- a driving game. "But the game was terrible," he said, and Audi's reputation fell off as a result of the negative hit the company took on social networking sites.
As applications proliferate, the challenge will be to rise above the noise, Baker said, recommending that developers focus on applications that provide discrete functions with results that can be integrated into other offerings (e.g., maps and points of interest). Though there are many mobile applications with little or no value right now, he said, many of those will fall by the wayside in the next two years.
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