8 minutes reading time (1611 words)

Alistair Crane: apps for living

Alistair Crane. Photograph by courtesy of Grapple Mobile

The growth of mobile continues to be something to watch. Your handset is likely to be a very different one from that of 10 years ago, with an easy-to-use app store, a rich browsing experience, and a much greater capability for media storage.
While all of these facets provide the potential for innovation and the growth of a relatively new market, there is still considerable friction and turbulence within it, particularly in the way in which applications are developed and offered.
Alistair Crane, CEO of app developer Grapple Mobile, believes that the while the market for apps continues to grow, we are moving into a period which is different to what we have seen in recent years. Where growth was driven by the iPhone, new platforms and the re-emergence of well-known competitors will deliver a more open market.
Crane believes that the while Apple has undertaken a heroic job in building the awareness, findability and richness of applications, this status quo is to experience many different types of threats. The first is that both new and existing players in the market will become much stronger.
While Nokia has stumbled, its scale in terms of handset ownership continues to make it an important player. So many people own Nokia handsets, that it needs to become a dominant player in apps. Crane cites the openness of Ovi's approach as something which can help both developers and end customers.
5 years ago, if I said that Nokia would not be number 1 in any market in 2010, no-one would have believed me. They didn't listen to what people wanted, and continued to pump out the same kind of interfaces and hardware. People got tired of it, and had nowhere to go until Apple turned up. They're now rethinking their position, so I will expect to see more and more challengers, trying to take a chunk of Apple's share.”
Unlike iTunes, Ovi is not the sole distribution channel for the handset. Grapple uses cloud hosting for its apps, delivering simple URL connectivity with platform sniffing. This means that a single URL can be given in campaigns, with your browser automatically being directed to the right place to download the app. In Ovi's case, you are taken straight to the app, without having to launch an intermediary store first.
This flexible approach is very different to what we have seen in recent years, which is a rush to offer app stores in an effort to copy the iTunes model, rather than to offer something genuinely compelling. Crane sees the prevalence of app stores as the process in reverse: “You can end up with more than app store on your phone, which is nuts. You can get the Ovi app store, the Orange app store, the O2 app store... everyone wants to get a piece of this real estate, but they are not doing it with the consumer's interests at heart.
The app stores right now are just ghastly to navigate through. It's wonderful that Apple keep on releasing figures about how many apps are in their store, but there's no really intelligent way of searching through them. App downloading is hit-and-miss, which is why there's so much of an onus on Top 25 or Recommended lists. I would like to see more power going back to the people that build the bloody things, and allowing people to market apps freely and distribute them wherever they want, with success being based on that. That surely makes the best sense."
Crane credits Apple's phenomenal achievements in driving adoption, albeit at the expense of an open approach. Until a fundamentally better experience is offered, it will remain top of the pile, although it is clear that many competitors are hungry to eat into its market share. The view is that over the next 3 to 5 years, there will be 5 broadly equal chunks of market share owned by different players, catering for different tastes.
The next phase after the land-grab of proprietary app stores, in Crane's view, will be a small number of very good multi-device marketplaces. One way to deliver such an offering will be to lead consumers through “mission-critical” apps, where it becomes important for handset manufacturers to offer a small number of key applications that their customers will want. RIM, for example, offered neither an app store or BBM pre-installed onto earlier Blackberry handsets. For consumers to use BBM, they had to download the app store first. While somewhat unwieldy, it then offered a conduit to apps that would otherwise have been undiscovered, simply through the “Trojan Horse” of a critical application.

The app stores right now are just ghastly to navigate through. 
Alistair Crane

While many apps provide significant entertainment value, massive potential remains in the development of more functional, transactional applications that both answer the more direct needs of specific customers and audiences, while generating transactional revenue. “Years ago, if you had told me that you had booked a plane ticket to Australia through the Internet, I would have thought that you were nuts – are you sure that you are not going to get ripped off?
But, it's not dissimilar to mobile right now. If you had told me that you had bought a plane ticket in an app, I would be inclined to say that you had probably lost your money. But more and more apps and interfaces are going that way. M&S recently reported that as well as groceries, consumers were buying items such as sofas through their mobile website.”
The example of buying a sofa illustrates the simple, more environmentally-aware use case that the market is increasingly addressing: a real-world interaction, to which the end result is driven through mobile. Grapple's recent work with Blockbuster and T-Mobile delivered an app to which customers were enticed to visit their local store. When inside the store, they could scan DVD barcodes with their phones, through the app. Discount vouchers and content was then provided automatically, based on these scans. The result is that the consumer is given exclusivity of an offer based on their scans, and the retailer gains customer insight and a greater understanding of how to market to customers based on their scan and purchase history.
While these developments take place out-of-home, it is inside the home that apps can take advantage of an untapped market.
It's always been beyond me that people get so excited about the iPad. People say that they don't have to carry their laptop around anymore, when in fact they haven't had to carry a laptop around for ages. People will come to expect connectivity, and will use their mobiles much more than their computers, including when they are in the home.”
The domestic environment lends itself to a specific number of uses, which are probably less than those in diverse retail environments. Internet access as a “small-screen tablet” may be one; another is home gaming. Console manufacturers are starting to pair consoles with mobiles; games are increasingly sending dummy text and voicemails as the start of what will be a longer, deeper level of integration. “It's all about extending experiences. Can I continue watching the TV show, listening to music, or gaming? Mobile will extend all of those.”
For apps to continue this advance into more domestic environments, a greater awareness of consumer behaviour will be critical. Similar to the evolution of app stores, will be an evolution of user understanding, away from a more subjective, judgmental belief of who uses particular types of applications and handsets.
The man or woman who created this application: were they thinking about testing in the build process, or were they thinking about it being genuinely useful to the end consumer? Apps are often over-engineered, just to prove that the technology is there, and that it can be done, rather than how they can make life easier for the consumer.
My whole raison d'etre is to create applications which drive business and drive use: they have to be of relevance and benefit. It can't just be about something cool which happens when you turn your phone upside down. That to me doesn't stand of a good example of when you build an app. How can you bring additional value to people's lives through mobile? Apps happen to be the richest way of doing that right now.”
Crane believes that it's important to develop apps with target customers in mind. It is perhaps surprising that the concept of pre-testing, which has so (rightly) permeated the development of large-scale B2C websites, has not sufficiently trickled down into the UX of applications. The point is made that Apple's model doesn't necessarily lend itself to such a concept, due to its closed distribution method. The shift to a greater emphasis on customer pre-testing in itself will drive Apple to adopt a different methodology, as it is not as easy to test iOS apps with pre-test groups.
As mobile matures into a more open market, it is important to get the basics right, irrespective of the platform. Many have learned this the hard way in web development; it is important that the same issues of audience assumptions, closed development, and proprietary technologies are understood at a sufficiently early stage to build a more sustainable and open market for everyone.


Alistair is CEO of Grapple Mobile. Alistair and CTO Ed Lea will be holding an immersive workshop on “How to make the killer app” at Like Minds on Thursday 28 October. For further information and to book, visit the Like Minds website.
Don Boyd: the opportunities of digital creativity
Mediengruppe Bitnik: challenging media