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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.