Mobile Internet: Does Apple Have it Wrong?

Update: Since posting this article in June 2011,  I have met some analysts who strongly argue against the scenario I predicted, in part because of HTML5 – most notably venture capitalist and Facebook investor Roger McNamee.   You decide.  ~Ed


Original post

Let me start by saying I admire Apple. I am in awe of their fanatical focus and gorgeous customer experience.  They find ways to improve on existing concepts better than anyone previously imagined. And yes, it’s hard to argue with their revenue, but will Apple’s “walled garden” approach to owning the app ecosystem create an opening for Google, Microsoft and others to overtake? I predict “yes”, and several analysts agree, although they express it differently.

The Garden Wall will Tumble Again

The Apple love fest may soon be over, for a variety of reasons, but one particular reason that I and many people can’t stand is the “Walled Garden” phenomenon: you must subscribe to the right phone service, purchase a specialized device, and endlessly search, discover and download app after app, which is then trapped on your device, and then you must access content available exclusively via curated channels. Of course, that world is expanding (100 million Apple device sales and counting, for example), and certainly, controlling the channel enables them to control the quality and the attendant revenue.

Good for Apple and their customers.  But there comes a point at which the profit motive, the curated experience and security issues come up against real world practicalities, such as need and desire of users to access and freely (or securely) share information without having to care about what device they’re holding.  It should just work…kind of like a Web browsing experience, eh?

Just as the Walled Gardens tumbled 15 years ago (who remembers GeoCities? Excite? Magellan? CompuServe?), so too will today’s Splinternet factions (app wars) be reunited, simply because (a) people prefer choice and access; (b) reliable alternatives exist; (c) they aren’t scarce or expensive, and (d) the value of the experience must outweigh the pain and inconvenience of its use – not presently the case with most apps.

Think of it: with an Internet account, you can go just about anywhere you want on the Worldwide Web. You can share information with others, and the only thing your buddies need is an Internet account – ANY Internet account. Even web based email works reliably, mainly because it complies with W3C standards (“Web standards”).

Today’s mobile app providers have built gorgeous, shiny front-ends that distract us temporarily from the restricted-access conditions of their “app” use.   Apps have to be promoted and downloaded, sometimes for a fee, and they only live on your device. Your buddy has to have the exact same app to share the experience with you. This is like re-starting the Web all over again, except you make the App provider or the app store provider rich on toll fees while they restrict your access.  (Cue dorky announcer voice: “Now how much would you pay?!”)

Don’t Mistake Shiny for Better

Let’s not let the gorgeous experience and the shiny new toy hype blind us to the restricted access and curated content phenomena. Take a look at what companies like QVew and Nexaweb are doing.  Upstart QVew (update: now defunct) makes a write-once, run-everywhere content platform that let account holders launch mobile-ready mini-websites, hypercharged landing pages, etc. – as many as you can imagine – all for one price, and they work everywhere. Or, if you are an enterprise and need large scale heavy lifting on large databases, Nexaweb helps your enterprise modernize its legacy applications so that real-time, fast changing data can be accessed remotely via any Web-connected device, large or small. Full disclosure: I own a smidgin of stock in Nexaweb.

When will we collectively come to our senses and realize that the great Kool Aid that Apple, Google, Microsoft et. al. have been peddling won’t quench our real need for on-demand, anywhere-access to our preferred data, or just-in-time support for our real-world experience?

The June 2011 report from Flurry that indicates App usage has now exceeded PC deceptively compares two different data sets (app usage and Web usage) as if they correlate somehow.  According to the report, 79% of App usage time is spent on games and social media sites.   Most PC  and phone-based Web browsing is done for business purposes.  All this does is reinforce my point that most activity inside today’s Walled Gardens is comparatively frivolous, not serious computing, and after we get over the “shiny new toy” hype, we should again insist on what works – Open Standards – and take back the Web.  I predict it’s just a matter of time. Check in. Discuss!

Viral Marketing Backlash

A slight departure from the usual scholarly tone

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Viral, Schmiral.

Every occupation seems to have its share of humorous, derogatory pet names.  Lawyers, for example, are often depicted as sharks.  Similarly, marketing professionals have been depicted as snake oil merchants who peddle snappy-labeled bottles of an elixir that promises to cure whatever ails you.  The seller conveniently skips town with our gullible buyers’ money before we can all compare notes and discover the hoax.

This brings me to the subject of the phrase “viral marketing“.

Origin of the term “Snake Oil”

In truth, what often masquerades as viral marketing is merely the ability to reach an initial audience of online influencers in hopes of stimulating broader audience-generated distribution.   More often than not, the hoped-for result doesn’t materialize, and we all know hope is not a strategy.  You could no sooner engage in viral marketing than you could instruct a real virus who to infect next.  We’d all like our marketing messages to take on a life of their own and become distributed to an exponentially larger audience we couldn’t possibly reach on our own.  But to promise your client you can deliver viruslike results?  I’d like a slice, please.  Oh, and I also have this twitch in my neck I’d like you to examine.

The deception is that any business that professes to specialize in Viral Marketing is in fact promising something they cannot deliver.  I recommend we not profess to offer viral marketing as a service that can be packaged.  ROI projections, anyone?

What Viral Is – and Isn’t

If viral marketing were something you could package and market, complete with its list of features and exact processes you could carry out successfully every time, resulting in a marketing message that predictably, reliably spreads exponentially beyond its original audience, then I’d like to shake your hand, personally apologize, retract this article and become your reseller, if you’ll have me.  If you can’t do those things, however, then stop giving your profession a black eye by promising what you can’t deliver.  And get out of town.  After you give back my money.  On the contrary, if Viral Marketing were so successful, more of us would be doing it — which, ironically, would only saturate online channels with so much content that our short attention spans would be challenged to digest any of it.

I have sounded out this issue with a number of other professionals – marketers and non-marketers alike – and visited with real and imaginary people who profess to offer “viral marketing” solutions, to try to figure out this “viral marketing” thing.  So far, I have found nothing new under the sun.  What passes for viral marketing is at best an ability to address a large audience, or perhaps a few influential people.  Hmmm…I thought viral meant able to spread on its own beyond your immediate audience, altruistically, without further intervention from you.  Being able to blog, tweet, Friend, Link, broadcast, narrowcast or influence someone at the outset hardly seems to match the concept of viral.

Let’s please call Viral Marketing something else, something that says what it does.  How about simply calling it Social Marketing or, maybe, Advertising? What am I missing?   Holla back.