At the Westminster eForum meeting this week and interesting dynamic was explored. High profile speakers from the likes of RIM, Microsoft, Skype and O2 were debating the impact of smartphones and tablets on the mobile industry. Apps and the explosion in their use was obviously a key topic, but for many there was also the return of the mobile internet. Although the phrase has been sullied by its initial association with poor WAP-based implementations that were neither very mobile and certainly not the Internet, it is now seen as ready to come of age.
The central theme seemed to be that apps were developed expressly to deliver internet-like (or internet-lite) experiences to people with restricted bandwidth, low processing power and relatively small screens. Many of these constraints are now being removed. Although the 4G license (LTE) auction in the UK has been delayed, it will happen, and the newest phones have quite breathtaking computing power. Tablets and emerging alternative formats, even large-screen smartphones are also increasing the viability of viewing regular web pages on the move. So will the mobile internet rise again – and if it does what will be the impact on apps?
There were three contrasting views expressed on apps in particular. O2 unsurprisingly was in the Apple camp, celebrating the download of over 10 billion apps and the choice of hundreds of thousands of apps for almost everything. RIM was more circumspect, both focusing on fewer apps of higher quality and which helped consumers with the tasks they most regularly needed to do, and thinking forward to the symbiosis of Apps on a smartphone and the mobile internet on a tablet. Microsoft was pushing its Windows Phone 7 product with its concept of ‘hubs’ – using pre-loaded apps to pull together related content from the device and the web to make it easier to use, share and interact with contacts, photos, music etc. Finally, Google had a foot in both camps – not only pushing its own Android Marketplace, but also the relevance of search as the core of the mobile internet.
This all served to illustrate that there is no common view of where things will evolve to next. The apps market looks healthy and buoyant at the moment, and is generating significant revenues (although as noted in the Forum, mainly for Apple and Google), but few seemed willing to bet that it will last. There is also no common platform for mobile. After years of consolidation and standardisation on the desktop we are now faced with a number of strong operating systems in the market (RIM, iOS, Microsoft, Android).
The internet was successful because of its open nature, anyone with a browser can view any site. Apps are flying counter to this currently, with different implementations needed for each OS and even individual devices and dedicated stores catering for each. A mobile internet would return to standards-based approaches that are easier and cheaper to manage. However, apps get branded real-estate onto people’s personal devices in a way that web pages never will.
I’m not going to weigh in with predictions when those much more intelligent and better placed than I ducked. But it does seem that we are entering a mixed economy of approaches where apps and mobile web access with work alongside and together. Much of the difference will be due to preference and to the objective of the content provider. Angry Birds works as a downloadable app, but with good network coverage, a fast processor and a decent screen, why would you use a Facebook app instead of visiting the site itself?