The decline of the mobile web

People are spending more time on mobile vs desktop:


And more of their mobile time using apps, not the web:


This is a worrisome trend for the web. Mobile is the future. What wins mobile, wins the Internet. Right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.

Moreover, there are signs that it will only get worse. Ask any web company and they will tell you that they value app users more than web users. This is why you see so many popups and banners on mobile websites that try to get you to download apps. It is also why so many mobile websites are broken. Resources are going to app development over web development. As the mobile web UX further deteriorates, the momentum toward apps will only increase.

The likely end state is the web becomes a niche product used for things like 1) trying a service before you download the app, 2) consuming long tail content (e.g. link to a niche blog from Twitter or Facebook feed).

This will hurt long-term innovation for a number of reasons:

1) Apps have a rich-get-richer dynamic that favors the status quo over new innovations. Popular apps get home screen placement, get used more, get ranked higher in app stores, make more money, can pay more for distribution, etc. The end state will probably be like cable TV – a few dominant channels/apps that sit on users’ home screens and everything else relegated to lower tiers or irrelevance.

2) Apps are heavily controlled by the dominant app stores owners, Apple and Google. Google and Apple control what apps are allowed to exist, how apps are built, what apps get promoted, and charge a 30% tax on revenues.

Most worrisome: they reject entire classes of apps without stated reasons or allowing for recourse (e.g. Apple has rejected all apps related to Bitcoin). The open architecture of the web led to an incredible era of experimentation. Many startups were controversial when they were first founded.  What if AOL or some other central gatekeeper had controlled the web, and developers had to ask permission to create Google, Youtube, eBay, Paypal, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Sadly, this is where we’re headed on mobile.

The experience economy

Before World War 2, the middle-class in the developed world struggled to afford basic needs. In the post-war boom, standards of living rose dramatically, and people consumed far beyond what they needed. It was the age of conspicuous consumption: a race to own bigger cars and houses, and accumulate more stuff. The mean income in the developed world became sufficient to provide for a comfortable life.

Today, people increasingly realize they own more than enough stuff, and don’t want to pay for feature-rich versions of that stuff. Four blades in your razors are enough. In the language of Clay Christensen’s disruptive innovation framework, the product economy overshot the mass market’s needs.

An economy of experiences is emerging in its place. Experiences make people happier than products (a fact that scientific studies support). The popularity of experiences like music concerts has skyrocketed compared to corresponding products like music recordings. Apple, the most valuable company in the world, maniacally focuses on product experiences, down to minute details like the experience of unboxing an iPhone. Customers want to know where their food and clothes come from, so they can understand the experiences surrounding them. The emphasis on experiences also helps explain other large trends like the migration to cities. Cities have always offered the trade-off of fewer goods and less space in exchange for better experiences.

The trend toward experiences is important for technology startups. The era of competing over technical specifications is over. Users want better experiences from devices, applications, websites, and the offline services they enable. It is no coincidence that interaction design is replacing technical prowess as the primary competency at startups. People who create great experiences will be the most valuable to startups, and startups that create great experiences will be the most valuable to users.


Embrace the medium

An obvious but surprisingly under-practiced design principle is to “embrace the medium.”  Applied to software, this means building applications that take advantage of the strengths of the platform instead of trying to mimic the strengths of another platform.

iPhone and Wii games provide many stark abuses of this principle. Call of Duty is perhaps the single best franchise on the XBox and PS3, but the Wii version is almost unplayable.   They basically just did a straight port of the game, with worse graphics and using the Wiimote as a shaky aiming device.  It’s not an accident that the best Wii games are made exclusively for the Wii (and that most of those games are made by Nintendo itself).

iPhone games are perhaps even worse violators of the “embrace the medium” principle.  Recently I was thinking about downloading Madden 2010, but as soon as I saw the screenshots I knew I’d hate it:

Screen shot 2009-10-26 at 8.03.58 AM

You can see they are trying to force the XBox/PS3 control scheme onto a device with completely different set strengths and weaknesses. The iPhone’s strengths are:  touchscreen, gestures, accelerometer, networked, always with you. Its weaknesses:  no buttons, small screen, poor graphics/processor (compared to consoles).  The best games – Flight Control, Spider, Rolando – are designed from scratch to take advantage of the iPhone’s strengths.  Take Flight Control as an example:

Screen shot 2009-10-26 at 8.10.04 AM

You guide the planes by mapping their routes with your finger.  It’s such a simple, elegant and fun game, and one that could only exist on the iPhone.  It embraces the iPhone-ness instead of fighting it.

Notes from brown bag lunch at Betaworks

Lately it feels like a full-blown startup revival is taking place in NYC and betaworks is very much at the center of it.  So I was grateful to be included in a lunch discussion group they held at their offices yesterday.

Some things I left the discussion thinking about:

– In a discussion of the “real time” web (you can’t go to betaworks and not discuss the real-time web!) Anil Dash made the distinction between the value of real time as in the information being recent and the value of real time as in having a shared experience. The distinction strikes me as critical.  Speaking strictly from personal experience, most of the value I get from real time services like Twitter & Facebook falls in the latter category.  Reading my friends’ tweets helps me keep connected with them, the same way bumping into them on the street and exchanging small talk does.  The content isn’t as important as they connection shared and presence felt.

I think Anil’s distinction also explains why Twitter search is sometimes a strange experience.  Besides the (presumably fixable) problems of spam and relevancy ranking, you see a lot of tweets that are fragments of friends bantering.  There’s no context.  The major exception is when a news event happens, since then the related tweets are generally reactions to that event, so the event plus a single tweet provides the full context.

Caterina Fake discussed a few principles for designing successful user generated sites.

Among them:  make sure the minimum unit of work required of user contributions is very small (ideally, something that takes just a few seconds).  You can change something on Wikipedia in seconds, but writing a Google Knol page can take hours.   At Hunch, we think of one of our main product design innovations was to take something inherently large and complex (decision trees) and reduce the minimum unit of work to something small (submitting a result or question).

Another principle we discussed was what we at Hunch call the read-write ratio.  For every page created in Wikipedia (a “write”), there are thousands of millions of instances of people reading that page (“reads”).  The same holds true for YouTube (writes=uploads), Yahoo Answers (writes=questions & answers).  One goal in designing user generated systems is to get a high read-write ratio (for example, by avoiding duplicate writes).

Anyways, it seemed people enjoyed the discussion, since, as Anil pointed out, they weren’t doing much fiddling with their iPhones.