Insight 11

This article was written by David Wood and published on the Symbian corporate website in July 2006

Insight 11: The personal gateway to unbounded diversity

It’s a popular pastime at mobile industry events to ask a set of panellists what they think will be the next “killer app” for smartphones. A so-called “killer app” is an application that significantly enhances the attractiveness of the underlying computing device or platform, moving it from niche interest into much greater popularity. A killer app is a reason for people to make strenuous efforts to buy and start using the underlying device or platform. Past examples of killer apps include:

  • The Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, which generated widespread early interest in IBM PCs
  • Desktop publishing, which did the same thing for the Apple Macintosh
  • The World Wide Web, which made the Internet attractive

There have already been many different factors propelling interest in smartphones – including gaming, messaging, multimedia, enhanced communications, information retrieval, and digital convergence. The question about killer apps for smartphones tries to tease out of panellists their views about the next big trends – the forthcoming features of smartphones that will drive new waves of increased interest.

It’s a good question. Here’s one of the answers I like to give to it. The real killer app for smartphone will be Choice. I’m not talking about a specific individual application, or a single way of using a smartphone. I’m talking about the fact that users will have much greater ability to choose what to do, using their smartphones. And that will boost smartphone popularity. To explain, let’s first consider some context.

The story of history can be seen as the story of increased personal choice. As decades pass, people gain more choices about their careers, where to live, what kinds of food to eat, which books to read, what kinds of clothes to wear, what television programmes to watch, which charities to support, and what hobbies to pursue. In turn, this increase in choice allows us to find the things that are best suited to us, and potentially makes life a lot more interesting and a lot more fulfilling.

This increase in choice depends on a couple of megatrends. First, there are societal trends – trends towards greater tolerance, open-mindedness, trust, and personal freedom. Second, there are trends in technology – broadcast technology, display technology, information processing technology, manufacturing technology, and technology allowing swift customisation and personalisation. What’s less well appreciated is the role of one of the future drivers for increased choice – namely smartphones.

Smartphones will increasingly provide users with a mobile personal gateway into a digital universe with almost unbounded diversity. Wherever you go, and whatever mood strikes you, you’ll be able to use your smartphone to locate webpages, online communities, applications, or services to cater for your current needs. For example, when you go travelling, you won’t need to think ahead to decide which few magazines to bring with you, to read when a spare moment occurs. You’ll be able to look up whatever online magazine content takes your fancy, using your ever-present mobile digital companion. And if the topic of conversation moves around to a topic you weren’t anticipating, there’s no need to worry. You can quickly use your smartphone to find the relevant “Dummies’ guide” page or similar for that topic.

Smartphones go beyond providing choice in what you look at. They also provide choice in what you buy. You won’t be restricted to the set of items you find in the shops that are next to where you’re staying. You’ll be able to browse an online universe of shopping goods, covering every shape and size, taste and texture. Once you’ve found something of interest, the intelligence in the smartphone will give you a choice:

  • If you’re in a real hurry to take possession of the goods, the smartphone can tell you the nearest location of a real-world (physical) shop selling that item – or something sufficiently similar – and can provide you with directions how to go there (this takes advantage of the location-tracking features in modern smartphones)
  • If you’re prepared to wait, the smartphone can arrange for delivery of these goods to whichever address you specify.

In either case, the smartphone can remove one of the small but niggling hassles of everyday life – the need to dig out your credit card and use it in the payment mechanism. Smartphones will function as electronic wallets, with your account automatically being debited, whenever you approve it.

Here’s another example. You can use your smartphone to listen to radio stations that tend to play the kind of music that you like. If you hear a track that you specially like, you’ll be able to press another button on the smartphone to have that track wirelessly downloaded onto your smartphone, ready for you to listen to it again whenever you feel like it. The cost of the track will be added to your monthly phone bill.

This new style of living is sufficiently different from what’s happened in the past that it deserves its own new name – the “smartphone lifestyle”. And the people who first take advantage of the fast-moving possibilities of this new lifestyle will inevitably come to be known as “Generation S” – the generation that first adopted the smartphone lifestyle.

Of course, this kind of open choice relies on security. You don’t want third parties picking up your smartphone and using it to authorise purchases for themselves. And nor do you necessarily want people finding out which online magazines you’ve been viewing or which online discussions you’ve been tracking. For this reason, adoption of the smartphone lifestyle is predicated on people being confident about the security and reliability of smartphones. That’s where some of the other underlying technology in smartphones will come into play. There will be a range – dare I say a Choice – of different security mechanisms from which to select. These include face recognition or iris recognition (using the camera built into the smartphone), fingerprint recognition, voiceprint recognition, and so on.

This kind of open choice also relies on ease-of-discovery and confidence-of-quality:

  • Users need to be able to find, quickly, the kinds of applications and services that appeal to them
  • Users need to have some confidence in the quality level of these new services and applications.

On both these counts, the smartphone application ecosystem is still at a comparatively early stage. Matters are steadily improving, but it’s sometimes still rather too hard for developers to write specialist new applications, or for consumers to reliably find these applications and have the confidence to pay for them. Indeed, many users of smartphones only have a hazy idea that there’s a huge world of rich new applications and services just round the corner, waiting to be downloaded onto their devices. The market between potential supplier of smartphone service and potential consumer of that service is still somewhat inefficient. However, note the following:

  • Because there are already nearly 100 million users of smartphones, there is an enormous (and fast-growing) audience of potential consumers of new smartphone services
  • Likewise, there are tens of millions of people who have sufficient understanding of one or other software programming language, and who are therefore potential suppliers of these new services
  • So long as industry players such as Symbian continue to promote openness, and actively work to remove remaining barriers to innovation (by, for example, promoting improved new developer tools and documentation), the smartphone application market remains full of promise

One sign of the vitality of the mobile application market is the surprising degree of energy that I’ve noticed during my visits to one of the newer meeting groups in London – MoMoLondon, which is the name for the London chapter of “Mobile Monday”. People from throughout the mobile industry in and around London gather at these meetings, on the first Monday of the month, to share news, views, demos, and short presentations about emerging new mobile applications. In just a few short months, membership of this group has shot up to over 1000. And when registration lists for new meetings are advertised, half the available space on the list is booked up within the first hour from the notice being posted. The registration usually has to be closed shortly afterwards – such is the interest in these meetings. The interest in turn stems from the captivating diversity of types of new mobile service that feature at the meetings.

The idea that there will be single “killer application” on smartphones, well suited to all users, is as outdated as the idea that there will be a single “killer book” in a bookshop, well suited to all readers. Or compare the idea that there will be a single “killer track” in a music store, well suited to all customers. Yes, some books are more popular than others; likewise for music tracks. But there are literally hundred of thousands of music tracks to which people like to listen on a regular basis. As Chris Anderson of Wired has taught us, in his fascinating analysis of “The Long Tail” (which has a great deal to say about Choice), there’s a lot more to healthy markets than merely the first few hits that you might remember. Surprise, surprise, people are different. We enjoy the benefits of wide choice. And it’s the same with the applications and services that people will want to use on their smartphones. So it’s Choice that provides the real value. Welcome to Generation S!

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