Why are Mobile Applications still useless?

Mobile software is still at its infancy, but it’s still useless overall. I’ll tell you why I believe this, as well as provide some guidelines for mobile software developers to increase their user base and gain loyalty.

Background

Smartphones and Pocket PC phones are now heavily marketed, and more within reach than even 1 year ago. Manufacturers, mobile operating system developers, and carriers such as Microsoft, HTC, Palm, and Verizon have participated in extensive marketing campaigns during this time. Posters and ground mats have invaded subways (often 30 posters at one time).
As these devices are seen as the mobile holy grail of email accessibility, businesses have been the primary target of many of these campaigns.

With the invention of the smaller (but less functional) smartphones, the cost has been dramatically reduced. Smartphones tend to offer more advanced interfaces and capabilities than the traditional clamshell mobile phones, but still provide a simple and reliable phone experience. The more advanced user (technophiles and enterprise customers) tends to purchase PDA-style phones in an effort to combine the functionality of personal/business data management with standard phone functionality.

According to a report by Canalys, in 2005, there were 12,185,600 smart mobile devices shipped worldwide. A year later, 2006, 18,944,310 were shipped. This came to about a 55% growth. Figures for 2007 are still yet to be determined, as the end of Q2 has not arrived yet. The number of smartphones in India are forecasted to double in India.

With all of this growth, and an extensive number of existing applications, I pose the question: Why are Mobile Applications still useless?

Before I address some of the problems, let me clear something up. Some of the existing plethora of applications are actually useful. There are applications to scan and read RSS news feeds, download podcasts, retrieve stock quotes, chat with friends and associates on instant messenger networks, and customizing your phone’s interface. If you can track them down, many of them can be quite helpful, or even fun to use. It would be unfair of me to say that all the hard work put into developing these utilities and games ended up becoming “useless.” Some people even find these things to be nearly perfect. But with that said, in order to see more adoption and growth, some very serious problems do need to get addressed. I welcome other developers to read and address these issues, and follow some basic guidelines when creating new software offerings.

Current problems with Mobile Applications:

  1. Most of these applications lack solid and clean design.
    They’re often so clunky and confusing that people outside of geekdom have a problem using them. It has been proven time and time again, that a well thought modern design can tap into a user’s emotion, giving them an enhanced experience. This promotes longevity, loyalty, and simplicity and directly affects the image that consumers have on the company and its products.
  2. They’re unstable.
    Most smartphone and pocket pc users have been through this: the occasional or daily soft-resets required to clear out some funky state that is usually caused by a misbehaving third-party application or game, or a conflict between multiple applications.
  3. Finding and installing new applications is painfully hard.
    Unless you’re reading mobile phone blogs or digging through huge (and outdated) web-based application directories, you are not aware of the new applications. We’re too busy for that! On-device catalogs that retrieve freeware and commercial applications need to become more useful and prevalent. These are mobile devices that connect to the Internet, so why are we still using our desktop PCs to find and install software for them?
  4. Interfaces are inconsistent.
    Each application and game uses a different method of providing menu choices. Some use one of the option keys to present a menu, some rely on tap-and-hold functionality. Others use graphical objects to represent program choices. Still others use no menu at all, and require keystroke combinations. In order to reduce the interface learning curve so that people can spend more time learning the application’s offering, a basic interface consistency needs to materialize. There should be a standardization in how a platform provides access to functionality in an application.
  5. Prices are unreasonable for a majority of the commercial offerings.
    Mobile application developers will probably disagree with me, but from a consumer standpoint, applications and games for the mobile platform are ridiculously overpriced. Often, a consumer spends anywhere between $200 and $750 for their smart device. Additionally, they spend money on accessories that the device did not come with in shrinkwrap, such as a leather protector, a cradle/dock, additional memory, charging cables, extended/spare batteries, etc. This often adds at least another several hundred dollars. The device typically comes with a very basic operating system, and requires additional software. Many applications and games are priced anywhere from $20-50 a piece. At this point, these devices become almost equivalently priced to a desktop PC, but only provide a fraction of the functionality. In order to push more sales and increase adoption, mobile software needs to be priced more reasonably. From a developer perspective, time and money is spent on developer toolkits, APIs, training and education, and the investment to borrow/purchase devices to do development and basic QA testing. This ends up increasing the price overall dramatically in order for a development house to make a living. Cross-platform development toolkits, such as the offering from AppForge, will need to come down to a more affordable price tier for small and independent developers. If this doesn’t happen, the platforms will never become standardized, and developers will only focus on the platforms they are familiar with.
  6. Lack of creativity.
    As the bulk of even PC software falls under this category, mobile software is not creative enough. For example, there are at least 12 chess games available for the Pocket PC that each try to accomplish the same thing. They all fail in so many ways. None of them have creative interfaces for small screens, and none of them try to introduce new ideas. A fresh outlook on the development of applications and games needs to happen; innovation and creativity need to merge and give birth to new breeds of software. Introduce a new idea, concept, style, or interface.
  7. Authors abandon their work.
    Some independent developers spend 1 or 2 years working on a new creation, often times one that actually works. After some time passes, the developer either loses interest, runs out of time due to a day job, or gets discouraged from not making a living from the effort. It is then typical that the developer abandons development of the application and with changes to the platforms, eventually becomes useless or broken on newer systems. There are a lot of applications that have not been updated since 2002, but could benefit from some growth or updating. Sometimes the authors no longer respond to correspondence to their contact information, and typically do not open source their original work. This can lead to end-user frustration, and for software catalogs to be cluttered with stale software.

A Step In The Right Direction

Thankfully, a handful of companies are trying to move things in the right direction. Even with all the controversy attached to the Apple iPhone, just the existence/rumor/announcement of the iPhone has created quite a stir and demand from businesses and consumers for mobile platform developers to create sexy, useful, and easy to use applications. Microsoft has responded to this demand by spinning off and funding ZenZui, a company that has built a prototype platform for delivering high end widgets to the hands of consumers, literally. Whether these particular companies end up with successes is yet to be seen.

Is it my recommendation to independent and small development firms to address some of the issues mentioned above. With improvements to these areas, more users will adopt the mobile platforms and will become more useful over all. The larger companies are taking the lead, and to stay competitive the smaller fish will have to start attacking these issues as soon as possible.

Who you know, not what you know!

One of the many reasons new business ventures fail is the lack of a well formed team. In 2001, TWC wrote a press release that stated “Some 83% of all business start-ups fail, often because of intrinsic weaknesses in their management teams.” An article on CNN Money mentions that often times “dream teams” lead to failure because of too many all-stars on one team (synonymous with ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’). The opening statement in an article by Ian MacLachlan of Business Team states “The primary reasons for failure are a lack of capital and poor or no management experience.”

While there are a lot of other reasons that a majority of the businesses started fail within 3 years of operation, the leading cause is a defect in the team running the business. It seems that meeting the right people, for the right job, at the right time is painfully difficult. The proof is the fact that these failing teams are the venture killers!

But meeting the right people are difficult. Typically, to find them an entrepreneur must attend user groups, post advertisements for potential position openings, and query an existing social network. Without existing and trusted relationships already established, it is hard to acquire new connections. People want to get paid. And people really deserve to be paid. That hot idea and ripe market just can’t wait for that though; the opportunity slips by. Eventually, if the idea was worthwhile, another company beat you to it.

Why is it hard to meet and build relationships with quality people?

Unlike the days in most everyone’s youth, people are weary of building new relationships. They have wives and husbands, children, pets, existing jobs (“slave” labor), and hobbies; they are comfortable. People who are on the lookout for new connections are critical, and look down on lack of business experience. It is reasonable after all… they’ve been burned by inexperience, negligence, and victims of one-way relationships. Or they’re comparing you to the business owners they already know without getting a chance to see what you have to offer.

Why do so many people feel the need to be a part of every facet of the business?

This is something that has bothered me for a long time. A lot of people feel the need to dip themselves in every aspect of a new business’ responsibilities. Some feel that it is exciting to get a taste of every slice. Others have an ego complex. And still others have no sense of focus.

This is not to be confused with a general understanding and assistance of running a new business (“wearing multiple hats”). Core members of a new small business should definitely work together, lend a hand, and get an understanding of what the other members are involved in, but someone should ultimately own a responsibility. There’s simply no room for everyone to. Different views, opinions, and ideals eventually become a major disruption to what is suppose to be a bonding force between focused and striving founders.

Why is it so difficult to get teams to come together and build a shared agenda or ideology?

Why is it really? Is it because by nature our survival clocks keep us on our toes and lead us to trust (all too firmly) our instincts? Perhaps it is because we are weary of trusting others.

But in order for a business to be successful, a synergy between members is crucial. When a team can come together on a single (but shared) vision, positive growth starts happening. People jive, productivity increases, teams flow. Finding this balance is difficult, and as ever changing as stock market trends and pop culture.

There are answers. Nurture your connections.

Hired hands are a dime a dozen, but often they don’t provide a service-level needed to scale or start a successful business. Nurturing your network is the most beneficial form of building a future team. You’ll build trust and support, and eventually the people around you will want to be part of it all. By lending a hand to people you’ve met, mentoring another entrepreneur, or introducing them to your own network, you are seeding a future business partner (in whatever form that may be).

It takes work, but with persistence (and keeping in touch) you will find that the more quality people that you know will very quickly outweigh the quantity.

The question I propose to everyone is, what are some of your excellent methods of building solid relationships before a venture is even born, so that when the day comes to build a team, everyone is on board?