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App-solutely maddening: Break out of app data silos and win big

Phil Simon, Speaker/Author,

Those of us of a certain age remember the nascent days of the web, circa 1995. It wasn't pretty.

If you weren't around two decades ago, trust me: both in terms of style and substance, the web was as complete mess. More specifically, pre-Google search was terrible. Despite the relative paucity of information out there, data was generally fragmented and impossible to find.

Those ships have long sailed. We can search tens of trillions of web pages in a fraction of a second and almost always retrieve exactly what we want. Today, we take for granted connecting with others on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks. If anything, sharing is too easy. Just ask Justine Sacco.

Nevertheless, a redolent data problem is currently vexing app developers, hardware companies, and even powerful search engines like Google: data is increasingly contained in individual and unsearchable apps. This might seem like semantics, but make no mistake: it's a very big deal.

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The business reason: Why is this important?

Before getting into the considerable technology ramifications of this shift, an example is in order.

I'm a big fan of the Canadian power trio Rush. (How can you not be?) Let's say that I want to purchase the band's forthcoming DVD, R40—hardly a stretch in my case. Maybe I search Google and click on a result. Perhaps Google directs me to the band's website or official fan site via an ad in Gmail. In these scenarios, it's a good bet that Google will make some money through its referral. Ditto if I had clicked on an Amazon affiliate link on any site or spent my money because of a Facebook ad. Scenarios such as these have happened countless times.

But what if I made my purchase through the Rush iOS app? What if I circumvented Amazon, Facebook, and Google altogether? These companies wouldn't go broke tomorrow, but one can imagine the long-term threats to their business models.

Beyond that, there's another significant risk. What if these companies start to lose touch with their users and customers? At present, Amazon, Facebook, and Google know a great deal about each—perhaps even too much. (Click here if you don't believe me.) What if that starts to change? Again, this won't happen anytime soon. (In my case, I've used Google as my default search engine for 17 years, and its corpus of knowledge on me is pretty scary.) Still, all Rush's aren't created equal. There are movies titled Rush and people called Rush.

You get my drift.

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The technical reason: The disruptive nature of apps

Foolish is the soul who thinks that the Googles and Bings of the world can easily index apps using traditional means, such as sophisticated spiders and web crawlers. No, a new type of method is necessary. For its part, Google makes it easy for developers to learn about "app indexing" because, as the example above illustrates, apps don't natively "talk to" each other easily or at all. (As a corollary, this is why deep linking is gaining in importance.)

In an important way, apps aren't just "front ends" to garden-variety web content that anyone can view. On app-heavy mobile devices, users no longer regularly access a single "window" into their lives (re: a proper web browser). New iOS 9 multitasking functionality aside, the isolated nature of contemporary apps means a great deal of jumping around. Sure, they're cool and über-useful, but apps and mobile devices are far less efficient than they can and arguably should be. Put differently, it's not terribly difficult to imagine a future with vastly more intelligent apps and smartphones, thanks to Google Now, Siri, Cortana, and their ilk. This is one reason that Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple are devoting beaucoup bucks to artificial intelligence (AI), including some pricey acquisitions.

And this issue isn't confined to smartphones. The app explosion is hitting cars, wearable tech, smart TVs, such as the new version of AppleTV, and a panoply of devices that fall under the IoT umbrella. Forget social networks and dating apps. More and more of our personal information will "be born" and even "live" in our apps and on our phones—not in spreadsheets on our desktops. What's more, thanks to SDKs like Apple's HomeKit and Google's Brillo, apps are poised to get smarter than ever.

The solution: Breaking through the silos

The app-silo dilemma is a particularly thorny problem to solve, but here's the good news: some very smart minds are currently working on it. Google and Apple are very much aware of the issue and the problems that the status quo poses for developers and users. In the case of Alphabet Google, the stakes go beyond mere user inconvenience. Put bluntly, inaccessible data means less advertising revenue.

Aside from the 800-lb. gorillas, there are interesting startups such as Wand Labs tackling the problem from a different angle. According to a recent Medium piece, the company is working on:

...kind of an uber-app, a hub designed to let you can access the powers and data in your personal mobile universe — kind of a browser of the phone. The name Wand implies that you'll use the product like a sorcerer's baton. The biggest magic will come when you use Wand to share the powers of your apps with friends and contacts; you can grant them access to the apps and even the services you subscribe to, even if they don't have those apps or services on their own devices.

Note here the ability to not only share information among disparate apps with yourself but also with others for a temporary period of time. One can imagine easily granting limited app permissions to friends, colleagues, and family members without having to provide passwords and user names. Yes, you can tweet on my behalf while I take the stage to give a keynote address. I can give you my phone for an hour without worrying about what else you'll do with my iPhone or Nexus.

As the Chinese say, in chaos there is opportunity.

Apps are still exploding and PCs aren't returning to their erstwhile state. Whoever cracks the app-silo nut is poised for success. Opportunity abounds for those who can make sense from increasing—and increasingly fragmented—data streams.

What say you? How are you cracking the nut?

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