I had a fascinating conversation with my friend Richard Hobbs this weekend. Richard was the overall project manager for Windows 2.0 (that's right 2.0) before working on MediaView, leaving Microsoft, purchasing a Trout Farm in the middle of nowhere (a beautiful middle of nowhere) and then going to law school.
Richard was expressing his surprise at the ascendency of mobile web access - arguing that the web experience of using a "tiny little screen" was really poor. I pointed out that most of what mobile users do is either mail, texting or dedicated apps. Living in the middle of nowhere, Richard doesn't know any iPhone users, and hadn't really seen what apps are.
This whole discussion got me thinking about why apps are so important, even though they are so simple. Many apps are really just glorified web sites - a simple UI to access functions provided by a vendor. What was it that made wrapping such functionality in an "app" so compelling, and necessary to the inflection in adoption of mobile web access?
Easy to find
The App Store wasn't the first place that one could go to find categorized lists of useful apps. Download.com, cnet and others have had such lists for years, but none came close to the prominence, ease of use or level of adoption of the App Store.
What apple did was to create a compelling device where the "app listing and download service" was extremely prominent, and where the one click ease of getting an app was far simpler than anything that had come before. Transferring the iTunes model of content selection, purchase, and download to apps made the 10x factor in ease of use that normal people need in order to adopt new technology and new technology assisted processes.
Easy to use
Sad but true fact, which I would never have figured out without Apple's guidance: Even the simplest website is hard to use. Why? I have to open a browser, type or paste in an address, wait for the response, log in (in many cases) and then figure out how to use the current version of the site. Most sites are still built using what I call the "can do" interface - I have menus of choices, lots of links, lots of things that I "can do" but little or no guidance about what I "should do". Even once I've figured this all out, I have to bookmark and then remember what I called the bookmark.
Apps are really really simple. Once the user states an intent (by clicking the icon which is synonymous with the app) the workflow is highly constrained. The app uses only the features of the device which are part of that workflow. The user gets stuff done, having made only one choice.
Apple (and now others) have taken the "can do" and fronted it with the "do do". The user gets what he/she wants done easily, with only one real decision.
Cheap to buy
Apps are cheap. Vendors don't have to stock shelves, project sales, design boxes, pay shipping and inventory costs, set up distribution networks, or even market (if they have a hot app). In order to gain mindshare and sales, vendors set prices at low to no cost, and make up for it with upselling, or advertising.
There's no reason for a user not to buy a $2 or $3 app. This level of cost is justified by being entertained for an hour, saving 10 minutes / week, or looking cool in front of some friends for a few minutes.
Simple to understand
One of the biggest problems with the software industry prior to the mobile web was that you really couldn't build a business based on providing a feature. You had to have a whole application (which was a big heavy thing worth at least $50) laden with features to justify the cost. This cost factor lead to additional prominence of the "can do" model as application developers tried to anticipate anything that users (or business decision makers) might want and add those features into a bloated app.
The app store changes that. Instead of having 3-6 all purpose apps (the average windows user) that do everything, the app store enables me to have the equivalent of a garage full of special purpose equipment - flashlight, compass, todo list, maps, clock, newspaper...none of which have to know about each other, add value, or add complexity.
Cool to Show-Off
Desktop apps just aren't cool. They are bulky, slow to install, invasive, dangerous, complex, and expensive. What's more, they use a keyboard and a mouse in the same way as each other. Even super useful desktop apps look very similar to each other.
Many mobile apps are designed to do exactly one thing - get me to buy the app so that I can show it to my friends. They do this by using the machine in new and novel ways. From Smule's Ocarina, to the gryo-demo jenga game to foursquare to iFart, there's something about the winner apps that is different. They succeed because they are different. Mobile apps don't have to be alike, because they are so simple.
Always Available, Always Compatible
The App Store is always open, and it takes less time to checkout than it does at a 7-11. I can select, buy, download, and play a new game while sitting on the toilet.
There's no question about where the store is, when it is open, whether things are in stock, and whether it is compatible with my device.
Look at the mess that is today's instance of a physical "App Store" - the software section of Best Buy. I have to find a store, find that section, distinguish between all the gaming platforms, mobile platforms, OSX or multiple windows variants. Then I have to read through box copy and perhaps even (heaven forbid) talk to a sales rep. Then I have to stand in line. Nightmare.
Writing this is making me want all of my apps to work on my Mac.
In characteristic Apple style, the App Store changed the game by making things "just work". Most of what apps enable could be done prior to the first app store, but that was "can do" - Apple turned that into the "do do" that many of us do many times a day now.