Why app numbers don't make the platform

Mobile user-experience expert Jan Chipchase discusses smartphones, tablets, the cloud and the future centre of gravity for the mobile industry
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

In the second of two interviews, ZDNet UK talks to Jan Chipchase, user-experience researcher at Frog Design, which specialises in collaborating with electronics manufacturers on the creation of new products.

Until April 2010, Chipchase worked for Nokia where his ethnographic research played a significant role in the mobile maker's dominance in the so-called emerging markets.

In the first interview, Chipchase gave his views on challenges the mobile industry faces in addressing emerging markets; here, he discusses smartphones, tablets and the future of the mobile industry.

Q: This year's smartphones all look really similar. Is the smartphone becoming like the PC?
A: There are definitely strong parallels between the PC industry and the smartphone industry, particularly in the Android landscape, and being able to stand out in a market that frankly is increasingly going to be driven by price. If you look at what some of the players are bringing out — like the Huawei Android phone, which I believe is sub-$100 (£62) in Africa — how do you stand out?

In part it's the hardware. Obviously, the app platform is being seen as a considerable asset, and certainly it is in terms of encouraging developers to come up with new and increasingly interesting ways of doing things, but focusing on the number of apps in the app stores is like focusing on the number of cars on the M25. More is not better in terms of quality, in the same way as having a huge number of vehicles on the M25 doesn't increase the quality for everyone. It starts getting in the way of discovering what's interesting and relevant.

What makes a platform relevant is a great set of APIs, a consistent platform on which to develop, and cool hardware.

What's the point of tablets? Is the industry trying to create a need?
Fair point. We're still learning as a planet what it means to have another window to our digital lives, and the industry is still trying to figure out what that is.

We're still in an early-adopter situation with tablets. Tablets have been around for years, but not in a form factor that's sufficiently slide-in-my-pack-able. There are already strong use cases that come out of that, whether it's watching a movie with a loved one, browsing the news or an e-book, or enjoying a solid web experience.

Focusing on the number of apps in the app stores is like focusing on the number of cars on the M25.

If you look at where it fits into the UK systems and market... if you have something as heavy as this brick [holds up his MacBook], if you can figure out something that's a third of the weight and delivers 25 percent of what you want in the café or meeting, then yeah.

How important do you see the cloud becoming?
I do a lot of collaboration across time zones, and the whole notion of having a document or spreadsheet that is not inherently connected is a joke. If I was in the business of providing standalone applications and I was assuming that was going to be my cash cow for the next 15 years, I would be worried about the big accelerators for exposing those cloud office suites to consumers, because once you've experienced it, it's very difficult to go back.

It feels as if the centre of gravity for the mobile industry is currently in the US. Do you think it'll stay this way?
I agree that, platform-wise and software-wise, it has definitely shifted there. In terms of experimentation and the whole ecosystem, Seoul and Tokyo are still [in the lead]. I'm often asked where the future is most likely to appear for X. To me, software and platforms are west coast US; mobiles within the broadband hyper-connected society are definitely Seoul; and the incredibly tightly-integrated rich ecosystem, including mobile payments, vending machines and public transport is definitely Tokyo; and for things like m-banking, places like Afghanistan. What happens in the next 10 years in NFC, particularly in the US, might change that statement.

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