One of the things I didn't get a chance to discuss in my recap of Midem
was that there was definitely an undercurrent of people thinking that "apps" are the "answer." There were a bunch of app companies there, and they were swamped with interest, and lots of people seem to be looking at Apple's "success" with the iPhone app market as a chance to regain control, and with it, something to charge for directly. While I don't think many people were expecting apps to be "the answer," there was certainly an impression that apps are going to be a big part of the future. As I've made clear in the past, I'm pretty skeptical that this sort of app madness
is really sustainable (or all that lucrative). There are a few reasons for this:
- Very, very, very few apps make very much money. We've been suggesting this for a while, and the numbers seem to support it: there really isn't that much money being made directly on selling apps, even on the iPhone. Sure, lots of apps may be selling in aggregate, but very few individual apps make very much money.
- Apps are still loss leader/low-margin leaders for hardware makers, and they know it. Sure, Apple wants app developers to be happy, but first and foremost it wants to sell more hardware, which is where it makes its money. And it knows as well as anyone that the more powerful the device is, the more reasons there are to buy the hardware. That means the hardware makers actually have incentive to push the price of apps down (or encourage free apps). This pressure will only get stronger over time.
- Apps can be copied too. This is the one that seems the most obvious to me, but seems to get very little attention from those who believe totally in the app revolution. Apps are still digital files and they can (and are) copied regularly. Thinking that putting everything into an app is an easy response by itself to unauthorized copying is a bit short-sighted.
- Future standards will break down some walls. While it won't happen that fast, and probably won't happen in all areas where apps exist, things like HTML 5 will certainly break down the walled gardens found on various app stores. Yes, native apps give a better user experience for now, but web standards will get better and better and allow more to be done via the web, totally bypassing any app gatekeeper (and paywall), just like Google did with Google Voice on the iPhone. We've seen this before. The desktop used to be ruled by client-side apps, and then lots of those apps went (or are in the process of going) web-based.
- App overload. While there is a group of folks who constantly get new apps, an awful lot of people get a few apps, get themselves comfortable and then never go back to buy another app. There are really only so many apps most people need, and once they have them, there's little reason to keep getting more.
This isn't to say that anyone should be ignoring
the app space, or that there's no money to made in apps. It's just that the folks acting like it's going to be "the way" that things are done in the future are going way overboard. It definitely still makes sense to have some sort of app strategy and to play in the space somehow, just not to bet everything on it. And some apps can certainly make money, but a key might be to focus not on selling the app
itself, but on using the apps to provide a scarcity
. For example, I've heard good things
about the new This American Life
iPhone app, though it's mainly because of the convenience
it provides over alternatives for now. Alternatively, you could see apps that drive people to other scarcities doing quite well. But focusing on just selling apps because that's the next big thing? Might not be the best strategy for most...