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Mobile trends: It's time for developers to think beyond the app

Floyd N. Piedad Director for R&D, Stratpoint Technologies, Inc.

The mobile app trends for 2015 and beyond are being driven by three major changes in the telecom and IT industries: the availability of low-cost mobile devices, ubiquitous Internet connectivity, and the proliferation of low-cost cloud-based services. I discuss each of these in detail below.

This environment is driving three major trends with respect to app functionalities: apps that aggregate and publish content, apps that act like a platform for other apps, and apps that become the collection tool for personalized data. All these are now pushing developers to adopt a new model for app development, one that involves building not just an app, but a "service." Success with this new model hinges not just on their development skills but, more critically, on their operational capabilities.

Major changes in telecom and IT

The first major change in the technology landscape is the sharp price drop for powerful mobile devices. The average price of an Android device dropped to $254 in late 2014. In India, Xiaomi's Redmi—with a multi-core CPU, GPS, and 3G connectivity—can be bought for only $100, even without telco subsidization. On the high end, new iPhone and iPad models are released nearly twice per year, pushing the prices of older models and secondhand units to affordable levels as well. What this means for app developers is that apps can be more feature rich, perform better, and provide a better user experience compared to just a few years ago.

A second major change is that a lot more people now have Internet connectivity—42 percent of the world as of January 2015. Even mobile users are now able to enjoy low-cost Internet connectivity on their mobile devices, either through more affordable monthly unlimited usage plans, by taking advantage of buckets of data services on demand, or simply connecting to free Wi-Fi hotspots that are becoming more common in public spaces. Mobile apps can now make available features and functions that are only possible when users are online on the Internet, engaged in social network connectivity, data analytics, content search, and other activities.

The third and last of these changes has to do with the commoditization of the cloud, pertaining to services that are available via an Internet connection and typically on a subscription basis. Most everything in the cloud is now more affordable to everyday consumers—unlimited storage at $5.00 a month, dedicated servers at $5.00 a month, and usage-based cloud services at $0.05 per hour. For app developers, this also means that enabling cloud-based functions is very affordable—if not free—for apps that only serve a few thousand users. With cloud connectivity, apps can run across different devices, connect with other applications, and tap into a greater quantity of data and computer power.

These changes around the mobile device, Internet connectivity, and cloud infrastructure are enabling three major trends in the types of apps we'll see over the next few years.

1. The app as a content aggregator and publisher

People are using their devices to read and share content with their social networks, tap into cloud-based data sources, and access services that are no longer confined by geography. Apps are now expected to have some form of content aggregation built in, based on their ability to access content from other apps.

Facebook is a pioneer in this area, since it has become the primary place where people share updates, upload photos and videos, and organize group conversations. Recently it has started to incorporate user-to-user selling features, aggregate news from third-party sources, and provide a search facility from within Facebook.

Besides aggregating content, innovative apps are now sharing their content so they can be viewable or consumable via other device types, such as desktop computers, wearable devices, and other digital screens. Even more groundbreaking are apps that make available not only content but the actions enabled by it, so that it's possible to interact with the content even without opening the app in which it originated.

To get a feel for how this new interaction model is taking shape, look at the current implementation of Android and iOS notifications. When a notification is generated by an app, the contents of the notification are displayed, along with a direct way to respond to it. For example, HipChat content in the notifications window is shown along with buttons for liking, not liking, or responding to it.

When a notification is generated by an app, the contents of the notification is displayed, along with a direct means to respond to it.

2. The app as a platform

The second growing mobile app trend involves apps that are taking content aggregation to the next level, by serving as a platform for other content and allowing it to live exclusively within the parent app.

Leading the market in this regard are instant messaging services, where content beyond text messages is now being exchanged by users. Leveraging their installed base of hundreds of millions, these apps aim to keep users engaged with their community by allowing them not only to communicate but also to entertain themselves or engage in commerce.

WhatsApp, with 600 million users, allows text, group messages, emoji, location info, contacts, photos, videos, and voice calls. Other chat apps are now integrating video streams, video calls, doodles, files, online social games, music, shopping, microblogging, and movies.

What typically would require launching several apps can now be done within the messaging app, because APIs are being provided to developers to tie in and even monetize their content. The objective of these messaging app providers is to make their apps the first and most often used app on the user's mobile device. The more often their app is used and the less often the user switches to another app, the better the chances for the app to remain on a user's mobile device.

If users continue to support the growth of messaging apps as platforms, then we can view them as the third channel for content deployment, with native apps and web apps being the first and second channels, respectively.

3. The app as a collection facility for personal data

The mobile device is no longer just a phone—it's a multimedia consumption and creation device that uses advanced sensors and peripherals. Forty years ago, mobile phones had only a keypad and a microphone/speaker for the user interface. Fifteen years ago touchscreens and cameras were added to phones. Then came infrared, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS. In the last five years alone, a multitude of sensors became standard offerings in devices: accelerometers, gyroscopes, NFC, and low-energy Bluetooth.

Today, we have devices with altimeters, multi-touch, temperature, barometer, compass, proximity, heart rate, fingerprint, and even 3D imaging features. Most recently, Apple integrated pressure-detection on touch pads, which is bound to show up on the screens of future iPhones and iPads.

All these sensors enable the mobile device to know the user's location, environmental conditions, activities, and physical condition. They allow for the development of apps that will offer new interactions, generate new types of content about the user, and make it available for cloud-based data analytics.

Apple's recently released ResearchKit offers an example of an app or platform that leverages personal data and data collected from the iPhone device and combines it with data from other people to generate new knowledge through statistical analysis, pattern recognition, and other big data analytics. While it's currently meant for medical-data gathering by connecting to HealthKit, there's no technical reason why its platform cannot be extended for nonmedical applications, such as opinion surveys, hyper-local weather data gathering, and population demographics.

Think services, not products

Developers should stop thinking of their apps as only software products with finite or limited use cases, otherwise they'll quickly become irrelevant in today's hyper-social, multiscreen, and Internet-centric world. For example, one can no longer just make a camera app that takes a photo and stores it in the device—users expect that they can at least be stored in the cloud, be accessible from other devices, and be easily sharable to their social networks. Somehow, that photo should be available any time, all the time, even when the camera app itself isn't in use. In effect, these expectations require the app to provide a photo "service."

How can developers transform their apps into services? The first step is to identify the core content that is generated by the app: the essence or reason for its existence. What do I mean by core content? For example, Twitter's core content is "the 140 character microblog or tweet." Facebook's core content is "the social graph" and every other piece of content on its site is centered around it. Instagram's core content is "artistic images."

Once the core content is identified, the developer has to treat it as an "object" that is easily handled within the app, accessible to other apps, combinable with other apps and content, and even capable of being manipulated by other apps. The developer must therefore allow this core content to have a life outside the app and make it available through an API that lives in the cloud.

After the product is turned into a service, the developer must then structure the development shop to support the operational activities needed to manage a cloud service that is expected to be available 24/7. This can be a challenging, even painful transition, but it's only by adopting a services mindset that developers will be able to make their app's content competitive and relevant in 2015 and beyond.

Image source: Flickr

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