The expanding influence of apps and mobile

Ken Yarmosh on apps vs. web and the Mac App Store.

If mobile interfaces continue to shape desktops and laptops and the Mac App Store successfully pushes the app business beyond mobile, “Back to the Mac” may prove to be more than a quirky tease for an Apple event. Mobile, it would seem, is leading the parade now.

With this as a backdrop, I got in touch with “App Savvy” author Ken Yarmosh (@kenyarmosh) to get his take on the current state of the app landscape and its near-term future and influence. Our interview follows.

Is Apple now a mobile-first company?

Ken YarmoshKen Yarmosh: Apple explicitly positioned itself as a mobile company with the launch of the iPad. Look at their product lineup and what’s evident is only a handful of items are actually not mobile.

For the foreseeable future, it’s likely that smaller mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad will continue to influence the evolution of laptops, desktops, and the Mac operating system. The reason is that they are spurring new ideas and pushing Apple to re-imagine hardware and software in a space that has been much more stable and less revolutionary over the past five years.

Apple’s focus on the iPhone, iPad, and iOS caused some unrest with its tried and true Mac development community. Even at the “Back to Mac” event, however, it was obvious how much their work on iOS and iOS devices is influencing their thinking. The new iLife suite has inspiration from iOS interface elements. Mac OS X 10.7 adopts iOS’ folders. And obviously the Mac App Store is derived from what used to simply be called the “App Store” but more technically will become the iOS App Store. Similarly, the engineering behind the MacBook Air was in many ways powered by the advancements made in the creation of the iPad. There will be further collapsing across Mac and iOS over the next several years. In general, iOS will spur the innovation that’s brought to the Mac.

How is app behavior different from web behavior?

KY: We’ll see less distinctions over time, but in the current environment one of the biggest differences is that apps are driven by touch. Even though touch gestures are present in many mobile browsers, they still are not as advanced as the experience in native mobile applications. Consider, for example, trying to play games like Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds in a browser versus an app.

Touch represents one of the key paradigm shifts occurring in how we interact with computers and other devices. While it became prevalent with apps, it will eventually be present everywhere, sometimes as the primary interaction, other times as a complementary one.

Is the app gold rush already over?

KY: The mobile app market is a tale of haves and have nots. Those making money are making quite a bit. You can guess what the rest are doing. There’s not really an in-between.

It’s still a new frontier, however, and one that is constantly changing. Consider the launch of Windows Phone 7 or the onslaught of new tablet devices. With the growth potential of those markets alone, I think apps represent as good opportunity for pursuing any new business venture. “Opportunity,” of course, is the key word.

Given the “have-have not” realities of the App Store, does the value of creating a first app lie in experience rather than revenue?

KY: The most successful developers typically didn’t make it big on their first apps. So, pursuing one app and expecting early retirement to following is a dangerous expectation. That type of misperception is why so many become disillusioned.

The benefits of building an app are not exclusively monetary. Those who jump into the App Store with a hope for more than big dollars are often the ones that continue to invest into it over time. They also so happen to represent the ones who eventually do see a tangible financial return on their investments. Commitment and hard work pays off.

What’s the biggest problem with the App Store?

KY: Discovery is often discussed in the inner circles. But for the overwhelming number of consumers, they don’t need much more than Apple’s lists of featured and top ranking apps to be happy.

I think that’s representative of the biggest problem, which is really more about supply and demand. At some point, the number of apps available stops to matter to consumers. For example, it’s doubtful that they will really care there are 300,000 versus 400,000 apps in the App Store catalog.

Apple likes to tout the number of apps they have but they’re aware of this issue. They expanded the featured list a while back and recently added a “Game of the Week” in addition to the “App of the Week.” It’s a good possibility that they’ll spin off games into its own app store down the line. The “Game of the Week” and Game Center are indications that Apple understands iOS is as much a gaming platform as anything else.

A more basic way to trim the App Store will be for Apple to enact policies about purging apps that become abandoned or inactive. They already have a policy aimed at name squatters, and purging could be a natural extension of that. I could also see the developer program price being used as a throttle.

What’s your take on jailbreaking and alternative markets, like Cydia? Are those viable options for developers?

KY: I follow the jailbreak community closely. From what I can tell, there are a handful of jailbreak developers who are making livings by developing tweaks, utilities, and apps for Cydia.

It takes a special talent and personality type to engage in that ecosystem. Even for experienced iOS developers, it’s not something I would recommend. These folks truly are hackers and what they are able to do is pretty amazing. Ultimately though, they’re constantly fighting Apple. it’s a risky proposition since jailbreaks can be broken even with iOS point releases (e.g., 4.0.1 to 4.0.2).


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