Friday, 29 June 2012

Innovation and Smartphone Apps - Serendipity Lost

I've been thinking a lot recently about smartphone apps but not because I want to invent the next blockbuster and retire to a manor house in Oxfordshire and become Richard Branson's neighbor. In computer geek terms it's because I have about a half-dozen parallel "threads" going in my head that have started to converge.

- Thread 1: For the past year I've owned, used and thoroughly enjoyed an HTC Windows Smartphone. I know that puts me in the tiny fraternity (~25 people) of iconoclasts who don't hear the siren song of SIRI and lust after an iPhone (especially the next one;-) or pride themselves for knowing which release of Android is running on their phone (Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich or the one I wish they'd make, Graham Cracker Crust;-). Windows Phone users alternate between contentment that the small number of apps on their phones actually work well for the purpose and envy/frustration that the app they would really find useful is only available for the iPhone, Android and of course The iPad.

- Thread 2: At NAG, being the hardcore mathematical geeks we are, one of our team built an app to display the voluminous documentation (it really is 10,502 pages for over 1400 mathematical and statistical functions. really.) We then started talking about writing apps to let a curious person run an example program for each of those functions to see what they could do (surely you've been dying to fit a GARCH - generalized, autoregressive, conditional, heteroskedasticity - model to that stock price time-series data on your laptop. Right?) As much as we'd love it if thousands of people wanted to fit a GARCH model on their Smartphone we know deep down in our hearts that there are really only 5 and all of them work at NAG.

- Thread 3: For the last several weeks I've been reading a series of essays by my friend Bruce Vojak entitled "On the Epistemology of Innovation". The latest is called "What Innovation Really Is" and is in response to a somewhat cynical article in the Wall Street Journal by Leslie Kwoh called “You Call That Innovation?". Bruce makes the point that true, breakthrough invovation (not the "weak tea" of incremental improvement) is, in business, "validated by its acceptance in the marketplace with significant financial return". He further agrues that when we analyze the people and processes that produce breakthrough innovation, we find chaotic, non-linear processes with seemingly little in common with an important exception: those who produce it are deeply and personally immersed in the problem and are typically working working backward from the needs of a clearly defined customer or user.

In smartphone apps it seems as if we could throw ourselves daily on the "haystacks" of apps without the least fear of being stuck by the sharp needle of an app representing breakthrough innovation. Why is this? Is this the modern version of how some wag describe the early days of cable/satellite TV?: 500 channels and nothing to watch.

- Thread 4: Google might be in trouble. I've done extensive and well-designed surveys of smartphone users;-) across the spectrum and have come to this startling conclusion: the vast majority of smartphone users want 10-20 really useful apps that "just work". A million apps is just clutter when there's no real innovation and utility.

I did an impromtu survey of my very technically savvy colleagues in Manchester this week. In round numbers, 20% were Android users, 20 percent were Blackberry users and 60% were iPhone users. The Blackberry users (those Neanderthals) and the iPhone users seemed especially loyal.

- Thread 5: It's not all Google's fault. I did a survey of my three children, age 16 to 22, all Android users due their father's insistence on choosing a carrier not offering the iPhone. They are at least moderately tech-savvy. To a person and without hesitation when asked if they would switch to an iPhone were it available, the answer was "yes". When I asked why this was, I heard thiongs like: I don't have time to sift through hundreds of "me too" apps in a category to find one that does the job well and reliably. I hate it that Android upgrades (to add features and fix bugs) either takes months or never come.

A cynical analysis of the mobile communications/computing marketplace might look like this. The carriers want us locked into their network for years at high, predictable monthly charges. The handset manufacturers want us to upgrade our handsets every two years so they can get more revenue from the carrier purchase subsidy. They'd probably prefer that we upgrade every time launched a new model but getting us to fork over $500 each time seems to be an impediment.Marketing is on the case.

Meanwhile, app developers seem to have succumbed to innovation-deficit disorder judging by the number of checkbook balancing and expense keeping apps. Most of the apps aren't worth downloading when free. It seems that the developers are hoping to charge $.99 and are relying on serendipity to cause a million of us to pay up.

So there you have it. Windows Phone users can't get useful apps at any price, Android users wade through swamps of apps to find a good one but hate the head-lock that the carriers and the handset manufacturers have them in. And 11 of every 10 phone owners wants an iPhone (and an iPad).

But it might all be better if a few people actually looked for what people need, immersed themselves personally in meeting that need and actually displayed some breakthrough innovation. Meanwhile, I'm still looking for a cool app that needs GARCH;-)

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