Nobody can deny that Apple has advanced the mobile web and set high benchmarks in terms of device usability and functionality. The iPhone single-handedly revolutionized how we use mobile devices, and apps have played an enormous part in this (even though the App Store wasn’t a deliberate creation and there was significant resistance to it for some time). Apps aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of functionality on mobiles, however. There are real problems for end-users as well as challenges for innovative early-stage companies.
The problems for end-users
On the surface, music apps based on streaming are great; you can access your favourite music (sometimes caching it for when you don’t have an internet connection) and play it wherever you are and whenever you want. However there are at least three significant problems with the majority of these apps (and to an extent, the services behind them):
- it’s not your music; you effectively rent it only while you continue to pay a subscription (a colleague of mine has already blogged about that here)
- you need an expensive smartphone to use the app
- any large data transfer (i.e. streaming) on the internet rapidly drains your battery.
No Expensive Smartphone?
Simply put; if you don’t have an expensive smartphone, there’s very little for you. According to Bango, 67% of users who access the mobile web do so using a feature phone, not a smartphone. If the functionality is instead provided by a (mobile) website, it can be gracefully degraded so that even if the end user is stuck with an older Symbian S40-based phone, they can still reap the benefits of the service. Thankfully for Psonar users, our mobile site does this, so feature phone users can still do everything smartphone users can.
Streaming kills battery life
Ever tried streaming music from your favourite streaming service over WiFi? You won’t have much battery left after an hour or so. While battery life is expected to improve, with more than the marginal year-on-year enhancement, because of work at Stanford (on quadrupling battery life compared to a standard lithium-ion cell) and MIT (on rapid recharging), consumer versions of the new batteries won’t be available in the near future.
Challenges for innovative early-stage businesses
The problems (particularly for ambitious but lean-burn companies) are twofold:
- porting complex apps to multiple platforms can be a significant drain on already-limited resources and one that competes with the core activity of maintaining and deploying new service functionality;
- apps give an unfair advantage to the gatekeepers of the stores in which these apps reside.
If you’re a startup such as Psonar with an ambitious vision of building a social music community that not only gives users convenience in managing their music but also powers social interaction around music as well (not to mention direct, digital engagement between artists and fans), you’re always resource constrained. That means that developing an app for iPhone, Android, Symbian, LiMo, BlackBerry and Palm can divert resources away from the core features of the service and diminish or delay the full user experience.
Even picking the most popular platform is dangerous if you’re picking one that isn’t truly open and therefore limits portability.
Instead, Psonar has taken the decision to create both a desktop and mobile website using a common infrastructure. Psonar runs on ASP.NET MVC and uses common Business Logic Layer and Data Access Layer code for both sites, separating the mobile and desktop versions at the controller / view level.
Having an ambitious product strategy to implement with limited resource creates prioritization challenges for early-stage companies, not least where to draw the line between duplicating existing product features across further platforms versus targeting a single core platform. In other words: do you meet the challenge of creating new and exciting functionality at the risk of excluding a large proportion of your target market?
Faster, simpler rich functionality across diverse platforms
Is there a sensible way forward then, for a business that wants to develop a fully functional version of an app for a device with substantially different characteristics to those already supported, such as a new slate/tablet device (e.g. the iPad)?
In contrast to dedicated apps, a ubiquitous browser-based approach makes it easy to achieve this simply and rapidly – by creating new controllers and views where necessary, to cater for the larger screen or other extended capabilities of the device. It’s not necessary to learn a new programming language or paradigm – instead it is all achieved by extending the existing site where necessary.
Other benefits of this approach include:
- making it easy to push out new functionality more frequently (even several times per week);
- requiring only a single test environment and set of non-duplicated unit tests for the majority of the infrastructure.
Psonar SongShifter – a different kind of application
Back to the ultimate goal of getting music onto your mobile device: what’s the answer today? Since the majority of the population don’t have an all-you-can-eat data tariff or fast mobile access, Psonar allows you to use a PC – any PC (you can download the Psonar SongShifter and run it on any PC, not just the one you have at home) – as a ‘fat pipe’ to transfer music between your mobile or non internet-enabled MP3 player and the cloud. (Mac users: there’s a version on the way; register here and we’ll let you know when it becomes available). Run the SongShifter on your PC with a fast internet connection and you can transfer the music you want (by track, playlist, artist, album or genre) quickly and easily. Better still, if you do happen to be sitting at the PC where your music lives, it sideloads from your collection in seconds and only downloads the tracks that don’t exist locally. And of course you can stream or download those tracks directly from the mobile site if you want, giving you the best of both worlds.
Apps & Applications
It’s clear that users value the convenience (and have confidence in the process) of going to a branded app store to acquire additional functionality for their smartphone when they want it. But in this age of [40,000] apps in the iPhone store, there’s an awful temptation for app store operators to set themselves up as king-makers and only promote those apps where there is a commercial advantage to them in doing so.
While in the long-term there’s little doubt that HTML 5 and related technologies should deliver really rich functionality in the browser and open access to all services and content, there is something tangible about downloading an app. It feels as though you’re getting something worthwhile for your effort.
So, in the spirit of delivering value: let’s motivate the Psonar community to install “Download the Psonar SongShifter” buttons on their websites and social profiles in the same way that the Mozilla community did with Firefox. No fear of corporate control – this would be grassroots driven and we’d be delivering an app that’s really useful in the interim until the nirvana of HTML 5 arrives (one thought – should we make the source open?)