I love apps, I hate apps. Their ingenuity and variety has brought fun and delight into my life, but I also long for a world without them. That is to say, a world without a handful of companies circling their wagons around my content and how I interact with my community. Fortunately something happened this week that should fuel a glimmer of hope for an alternate mobile future.
The real issue is not whether Apple or Android will win the war for your mobile phone, but rather the nature of the game they are forcing us to play. The digital revolution is at a crossroads. The Web was designed to be an open platform for the networked navigation of content, but increasingly it is under challenge by those who would allow it to become a walled garden for social media monopolists or a background pipe for proprietary mobile applications. In that context, Amazon’s lastest challenge to Apple’s control over your smartphone is a welcome development.
I still remember the day I made the heart wrenching decision to move all my physical books into storage and embrace the Kindle. Dust, space, and endless hours on airplanes finally killed the romance of ingesting words on dead trees. Now I read my books on my phone, my iPad and, when in direct sunlight, on a Kindle e-reader. After this week, I also have the choice of reading them directly from the Cloud. At face value, Amazon’s new HTML5 Kindle app might not seem that game changing but think for a minute what it actually represents. One brand platform, no App Store, no software downloads - just your content, on any web enabled screen wherever you are.
HTML5 has been kicking around for a while, but now that platform providers are playing hardball on their approval processes and demanding a greedy bite of third party revenues on content sales - publishers have a growing incentive to bypass them altogether. Amazon will not be long alone in this nascent uprising. Magazine and newspaper owners are growing uneasy at losing their direct billing relationships with their audiences. The Financial Times has already launched its newspaper on the HTML5 platform. More will follow.
There is a deeper thread to this conflict worth noting. At the moment, mobile application development is a nightmare in diversity. Different screen formats, multiple device profiles and divergent operating systems add up to costly duplication of work and complex testing processes. For CIOs in particular, this creates all kinds of headaches when deploying services in the enterprise. But in the future, what if you could virtualise any application and deploy it in a web browser? Music, productivity tools, secure communications, video games, newspapers - all hosted and deployed from the Cloud, irrespective of what device you are using.
Cloud virtualisation is not good news for everyone. It erodes the platform power held by Apple who have used the iTunes ecosystem to defend the high margins of their hardware products. And while in the short term, a shift to the Cloud might help challenger brands like Samsung, Sony, LG and HTC - in the longer term, even they will suffer as hardware and bandwidth commoditises and value shifts to a hyper-competitive era of platform agnostic applications.
Don’t sell your Apple stock just yet, but I do think we will look back and remember 2011 as the year this innovative company and its CEO were at the historical peak of its powers.