Packaging & Distribution in the Digital Age: Or, Why Even Grandma Loves Apps

Packaging & Distribution in the Digital Age: Or, Why Even Grandma Loves Apps

There's long been a raging debate going over HTML vs. Native Apps. Just Googling the debate returns over 3.7 million results.

I'm here to tell you, that's the wrong way of thinking of things.

It's like debating whether oil or water will win when mixed. You can't get the right answer if you're asking the wrong question. While oil and water don't mix well, they can co-exist in the same bottle, and there are valid times you might want to use each.

Let's dive into the right way to think about mobile, and specifically about the role native apps will play. A better analogy of the mobile landscape is from the point of view of a car manufacturer like Honda. Honda makes a lot of Honda Accords -- they're its bread & butter. But for years, Honda had a Formula One team. A Honda Accord will never compete at the Formula One level, nor was it meant to. And conversely, if Honda only had a Formula One team, it wouldn't have the massive market share in the auto market that the Accord and other bread & butter models provide it, but Honda did learn a lot about how to make really great engines from its Formula One program.

In the same way, mobile apps are the "Formula One" of mobile, and HTML is the Honda Accord. You can get wide distribution across many phones by having a mobile HTML presence, but you can't do the sexy, progressive types of things that you can do with apps, because an app is typically compiled software which can leverage the specific hardware functionality of the phone (the camera, the address book, geolocation, the microphone, and many other things).

Part of this raging debate has been that HTML will catch up to native apps, and in ways it has. Often times the refrain you might hear is that "in 2 years, HTML will catch up to where apps are today." Quite possibly true -- HTML5 can access the phone's GPS and take advantage of local storage, for example -- something it couldn't do before. But the second half of that statement that I never hear anyone ask is "where will apps be in 2 years?" Mobile hardware is not standing still -- rather it's evolving rapidly. As my co-founder Sean once pointed out, the basic desktop computer hasn't changed in 30 years: Keyboard, monitor, mouse. But phone hardware is changing massively every six months, and it's hard to impossible to imagine what it'll look like two years -- four product cycles -- from now. A great example of this is Project Glass by Google. Who would've really thought that a set of glasses that take advantage of augmented reality would be science fact, and not science fiction, by 2012? HTML is a trailing standard; there is no possible way that HTML will ever catch up to compiled software so long as the hardware is evolving at a rapid pace, which it will continue to do for the foreseeable future. And as a funny aside, did you know that the HTML5 spec hasn't even been ratified yet, and isn't set to be until 2014? I've recently heard engineers at Facebook, Gannett and other places stating that they're re-focusing on native mobile apps, because while HTML can get a user to 90% of the experience of a native app, eeking out that last 10% is hard to impossible using an HTML approach.

That's not to say there aren't very valid and useful reasons to focus on mobile web today. As a business, you might want wide distribution of your content -- the equivalent of needing to sell many Honda Accords. I'm not going to focus on those benefits in this blog, but they're there, and they all depend on your goals as a company wading into the mobile space.

This blog is all about apps, and what they might mean to your business or brand:

Back in 2008 when we started PointAbout and we were making high-end $100k+ apps for large brands, we had to convince clients to dip into experimental budgets, because many client weren't sure if apps were a fad. I'm here to tell you apps are not a fad. Apps are the future of packaging and distribution of your business in the digital age. Here's why:

The internet is complicated and distracting to the average user. We call it "browsing" for a reason -- the entire world wide web is out there, competing for my attention. Grandma probably doesn't wade too far across this web -- she might have an email account she checks regularly, and a few safe sites bookmarked. Ask Grandma to find a restaurant to eat at tonight, or to list an item on eBay and all bets are off.

The web isn't packaged well, and distribution is full of danger zones. There's no concept of ownership, and no intimate connection between the user and the brand. The web is kind of like the wild west -- a lawless place you wade into at your own risk. As geeks, especially in the Valley, we often forget how scary and confusing a place this can be for the average user.

Apps fix these problems, but that's just the start. Oh, there's so much more to apps than just fixing the packaging & distribution problem that's been vexing companies on the web.

Let's start with some vocab. Back in 2010, I wrote about the evolving definition of the word "app". Bill French said it best back then:

"Apps have become a meaningful abbreviation to technology that just works. Apps provide a common and easily understood idea that has been widely accepted as a solution - indeed a means to get stuff done quickly and effectively."

And I have thought about apps in that context ever since. Think of an app as a piece of functionality that just works.

When you think about apps in that way, you start to see what some of the opportunities are for apps to permeate our lives. Here are just a few examples:

Apps Replace Hardware: Last year, Marc Andreessen argued that software is eating the world. I agree wholeheartedly, and apps are a huge delivery vehicle for that trend. Take, for example, the Lockitron app, which I blogged about in 2010. No longer do I need to carry keys around -- I can unlock the office door using software. The app is the new key.

  • Apps Interface Well with Hardware: Not only are apps replacing hardware, but on the flip-side they also play very well with hardware. Some easy examples (of which there are many) are: Using an app as a universal remote in the living room, as a Wii-style game controller with your TV, to control an R/C vehicle, to check your blood glucose levels, to frame and focus videos from an HD camera and much more. Last year I made a video on the rise of APIs and their importance to mobile. As more hardware becomes accessible via APIs, you'll start to see apps controlling them in a big way.
  • Apps Make Appliances Smarter: Going a bit deeper on the point above, at first blush you might not be sure why your stove would ever need an app. But when you think of an app as a piece of functionality that just works, then it starts to make more sense: Have you ever wondered if you left your stove on? Have you ever wanted to pre-heat your oven? What if you could do just those simple functions from an app on your phone? Wouldn't that be valuable to you? If your stove alerted you just once that you left it on when you left the house, wouldn't it become super valuable for you at that point?
  • Apps Make Content More Monetizable: When content can be packaged and distributed in ways that the consumer understands (i.e., an app for $1.99, or an in-app purchase of an edition within a magazine app), it becomes much more monetizable. Add to that the emerging research that tablets are very good at driving buying behavior and you've got a game changer for media companies.
  • Apps Make Experiences More Relevant: The ability of apps to access various aspects of the phone, such as its GPS, are giving birth to apps like ScoutMob, which offers geofenced deals, and RunKeeper, which allows users to better track their physical activities, and Nexercise, which is gamifying exercising. It's the powerhouse combination of apps and the phone's functionality that creates very relevant experiences for users. As phone hardware evolves, this one will explode.
  • Apps Form an Intimate Connection: Apps make the chaos of the world wide web feel bite sized, and safe. Grandma knows that to read the news, she can just open the New York Times app. To make a call, she opens the phone app. To check email, she opens the email app. To figure out how to get somewhere, she opens the maps app. The apps a user has installed on their phone form a very intimate distribution channel and connection between the app publisher and the user. The app can send push notifications and get the user's attention in other high-value ways.

Do you agree? Disagree? Do you think the future rests with the web? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.