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The secret lives of apps

There’s no question that apps have changed the nature of mobile phone use. From a simple communications tool, the humble handset has morphed into a device capable of navigating us through unknown cities, entertaining us for hours and even supplementing reality. We just can’t get enough of apps – but they’re more than just entertainment. Apps have had a far-reaching effect on the mobile phone from handset design to customer retention.

What the iPhone did

We used to lust after the smallest handsets with the tiniest number-pads that you could barely text on and the minute back-lit screens that were no good for anything really. In 2007, the iPhone shook everything up with its brazenly large 3.5-inch touchscreen. A glut of identikit handsets continue to follow suit; as well as larger screens, bigger phones can house bigger processors and bigger memory stores. And what would really be the point of all these impressive specs if it weren’t for apps?

The iPhone has influenced far more than just looks; the prominence and success of Apple’s App Store sent every other OS into a scramble to catch up, shifting hardware specification focus, causing major software re-thinks and all but killing off buttons.

In fact, the majority of the hardware updates for the iPhone itself relate to increasing the functionality of apps; from the increase in screen quality to the improved cameras, the gradual implementation of the compass and gyroscope and increased memory for bigger and more intense apps.

Apps show what’s hot

Apps now play an important role in influencing hardware innovation – they make for a very handy barometer for manufacturers. Trends in app popularity on any platform show what features consumers are getting excited about in a way that can be easily quantified.

Touchnote CEO Raam Thakrar uses camera hardware and screen resolution as an example: “The increased popularity of image-based apps has certainly been a key driver behind the rapid improvement in camera and screen technologies thus far.

“Currently, everyone’s trying to guess what hardware will drive sales; faster, more powerful CPUs, improved screen resolution, improved touch interfaces. And here’s where consumer demand comes in. For example, Skype video call usage on PCs has shown that people like to take video-calls. iPhone 4 responded to this with FaceTime – in many ways, this was not a significant leap in hardware technology, but was a significant change in the hardware user experience.”

In sickness and in health

What’s the reason behind this scramble to facilitate the next big app? A big part of it is customer loyalty. It’s something we’ve noticed anecdotally time and again, particularly when it comes to the iPhone; once you have one, you’re loathe to leave Apple because you don’t want to lose your apps and non-iPhone users see comparatively poorly stocked app markets on other platforms as a deal-breaker.

Before long, it will be very difficult to tempt a customer away from their chosen app platform. For an industry that has long contended with customer churn, we could be entering a brave new world.

Manufacturers like HTC also realise the value of applications, particularly on an open OS like Android. As apps become more and more of a reason to buy a handset, HTC sees its key obligation is to ensure that users can quickly and easily find and access the apps that they want to use.

“Consumers want a phone that is relevant to them,” Drew Bamford, director of User Experience at HTC, told us. “The design of our phones encourages our customers to discover, use and manage applications to enrich and personalise their mobile experience. Our driving goal is to help users to take full advantage of the huge range of apps available. Part of the HTC Sense experience is centred around the home screen – where users access apps – so we have added a number of features to bring apps and functionality to the surface.”

This is where software design comes into it, and one of the reasons that HTC has enjoyed such success on the Android platform is due to its Sense UI. More than any other non-Apple platform, the Taiwanese company has managed to marry advanced hard- and software in a way that works well for the user. In part this is thanks to the obvious appreciation the company has for the burgeoning app scene, as well as its willingness to get stuck into working with third parties on its own applications and widgets.

Bigger than handsets

Not everyone sees handset hardware as being able to contain the potential that apps have for innovation; Russell Berry of AppCreatives, suggested that handset design may stall but accessories and add-ons would increase phone functionality supported by an app. “The device, be it an add-on for cross-platform gaming or a card reader for taking payments, will physically do something and be supported by the app; you don’t be able to use one without the other.” We’ve already started to see this happening with devices like Jack Dorsey’s Square payment device, and peripherals such as Sonos’s multi-room speakers which can be controlled by a bespoke iPhone app.

What does it all mean?

Whatever way you look at it, it’s becoming less and less about ‘look at my phone’ and more about ‘look at my apps’. Handsets are starting to live and die by their apps and the increased functionality they offer and app innovation is certainly giving handset manufacturers food for thought.

Regardless of what’s gone before, one thing is for certain: apps are here to stay and their influence over handsets is only going to grow.

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