(Note: As past posts of mine have underscored [see below – Related Links], the promise of a caveat-free mobile platform is a game changer on par with the advent of the PC. I won’t re-state my arguments here. Read some of the posts below if interested.)
On Friday, after about a dozen hours of trying, I was finally able to upgrade my iPod touch to iPhone 2.0 software (for those who don’t know, Apple servers were completely overwhelmed coping with what proved to be 1M iPhones purchased in the first three days of iPhone 3G availability. By contrast, the original iPhone took 74 days to reach this same sales threshold).
What follows are some random observations about the experience from a consumer perspective, how the reality post-upgrade lined up with the pre-upgrade promise/hype, and implications for the mobile universe moving forward.
- App Store brings the concept of friction-free impulse buying into the mobile realm by making over the air purchase, download and installation of iPhone/iPod touch apps/services one-click (plus password) easy. I expected as much, but the good news is that I have not been remotely disappointed. It's instant gratification, pure and simple, and an unqualified “AHA” moment.
- I have bought three gaming applications (Trism – a very cool, highly-addictive ‘touch and motion’ based puzzle game; Crash Bandicoot – an entertaining racing game with excellent graphics and audio; and Motion X Poker – a simple, elegant, beautifully-crafted poker game using dice for $4.95, $9.95 and $9.95, respectively), and can only say WOW! While Apple has obviously made some trade-offs relative to what dedicated handheld gaming systems offer – most basically, lack of a gaming controller/inputs – iPhone/iPod touch is simply awesome as a mobile gaming platform. Obvious areas to watch from an innovation perspective here are games that leverage the social and connected attributes of the devices, and games that support multi-player.
- There are a boatload of free applications accessible via the App Store (plenty of crap, too, I imagine), but so far I have only installed four free applications, all non-gaming apps. They are: Apple’s Remote Control application for controlling your iTunes library on you Mac/PC/Apple TV (kind of cool, depending on your set-up); Pandora, the internet radio and music discovery service (incredible, a logical extension to your formal library on iTunes); AOL Radio (again, a logical extension, some of my favorite mainstream radio stations accessible wirelessly via my iPod touch); and Twitterific (a nice, but somewhat clunky, front end to twitter). Given that the backlog of iPhone SDK developers is already in the thousands, it seems clear that Apple will need to come up with better filtration tools to enable consumers to recommend, rank and detail the good, bad and ugly of a given application. This is the signal-to-noise ratio challenge, as you know the axiom about opinions being like assholes, and adding to the noise is the fact that there are already reports of developers trying to ‘game’ the system. Apple should learn from Amazon here.
- While I have heard some lament that the iPhone 3G doesn’t add a lot of new functionality ‘other than 3G’ that kind of misses the point. First off, for iPhone 1.0 owners, this is the prototypical early adopter conundrum. New versions tend to be cheaper AND more powerful. Get over it. If speed isn’t that important to you or 2G is good enough, the real magic is in the software upgrade anyway, and it runs on iPhone 1.0 and iPod touch devices, so don’t upgrade the hardware if you don’t need the speed. If, however, you don’t have an iPhone, then faster speed, GPS support, improved enterprise-readiness and the ability to run iPhone SDK powered apps is manna from heaven. Similarly, some have quibbled that the iPhone 2.0 Software does not add a ton of new features per se, but again, that misses the point. The upgrade from a software perspective is essentially what enables the iPhone/iPod touch to work end-to-end from app creation (via iPhone SDK) to placement in App Store to the purchase, download and installation of new apps to the iPhone/iPod touch without breaking stuff. Experientially, this just works in a seamless and simple fashion, no small accomplishment, to be sure.
- Rumors of iPhone being a Blackberry killer are greatly overestimated, in my opinion. For one, while Apple has made some serious headway in terms of enterprise-readiness, the reality is that its support for advanced IT functions, is somewhat lacking. As such, individuals, workgroups or verticals that are pre-disposed to buy all things Apple will likely be the early adopters of iPhone in the enterprise, and yes, this will take a bite of out Blackberry’s business. But, the lion’s share of enterprises are NOT pre-disposed to all things Apple, Blackberry is rock solid and already the standard in most of these companies, and legacy is hard to dislodge. More to the point, what Blackberry is best at – being an INPUT device with a real keyboard – iPhone is only adequate at. Conversely, as an OUTPUT device, iPhone is without peer so it is somewhat of an Apples and Oranges (nee Blackberries) discussion that will play out over time, not in a single act.
Before wrapping up, let me spend a few minutes on the Pandora application for iPhone/iPod touch, as I think that it is suggestive of the real power of mobile applications; they can be media rich, hybrid composites (of a device layer, a web front end and a service layer), leverage the ‘wisdom of crowds,’ easy to customize based on your direct feedback and be integrated with other services.
For example, the first time that I launched the Pandora app after installing it, I was prompted to paste a set-up key into the Pandora web site, which activated the service on my iPhone and provisioned a web-based custom dashboard on the Pandora web site.
From either the web site or my iPod touch, I could now create a custom radio station by simply typing in the name of an artist or song. Pandora uses this 'seed' data to set an initial context for the type of music I like. Typing in the band ‘King Crimson,’ for example, led to songs by King Crimson, of course, but also similarly psychedelic bands like early Genesis, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and plenty of others that I had never heard of.
Moreover, Pandora’s player controls make it easy to give any song that is playing a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, which refines subsequent song plays.
Also, a thumbs-down automatically ends that song and takes you to the next song. What is interesting is that while you can forward to the next song without rating it if you don’t want to listen to it, you can only jump without rating six times per hour in a give radio station.
I am not sure if this is to force the integrity of rating songs you like/don’t like (versus just channel surfing) or if the long-term play is to make fast-forwarding a premium service.
Similarly interesting is the concept that Pandora is not designed to create one über station for you, but rather, a bunch of specialized music channels. If you think of a custom radio station as an intelligent thread (i.e., a perpetually-optimizing related songs playlist), that would seem to have all sorts of applications relevant to product recommendations, news recommendations and/or social recommendations (people with similar interests).
The key point is that if you can do the same thing with different information media types as Pandora proves that you can do with music that opens the door to recommendation systems as the next generation beyond search.
From this perspective, one could very well imagine the day when I can pick a topic, provide some thumbs-up/thumbs-down feedback, and then follow the intelligent threads, archive the keepers and mine it when I need it later.
To be clear, this is not a new concept but mobile seems tailor made for such a model to take root.
A final note on Pandora in terms of other things that I like that are worth emulating:
- Algorithmic transparency: you are just a click away from finding out why a given song was recommended to you. A cool add in this regard would be to enable deeper engagement and introspection by allowing you to up-level from the media player playing an individual song to the full album and/or across to the other albums of the same performer. There may be licensing restrictions that preclude this today, but this could also be the fork between a free service and a premium service.
- Bookmarking of favorite songs: how many times do you hear a song you like, not know the name of it, and never find it again? With Pandora, in a click you can bookmark the song for future listening. Plus, I am a click away from buying the song or album at iTunes or Amazon’s MP3 store, thanks to integration with these services.
- Sync to Web: Similarly, cool is the fact that all of the actions that you take on the iPhone/iPod touch sync back to your web front end, and vice versa, meaning that the service is a composite of all of your actions. This is suggestive of an area that Apple can evolve its MobileMe service, inasmuch as if it is sync’ing all of your data, it can give you tools to better categorize and then magically do all of the sync’ing between Web, Mac/PC and iPhone/iPod touch, and provide recommendation buckets to you.
Bottom line: I love the Pandora concept of simply inputting a categorized favorite as a contextual starting point and then thumb-upping or downing your way to a ‘predictable’ recommendation filter. I also love the fact that it feels like Pandora has found its true calling as a mobile application, as Internet radio is cool but not compelling in a PC environment, but in a mobile environment with a touch based controls, it feels akin to what TiVo did to TV. It reinvented it.
UPDATE 1: App Store apps not really Apple Tested and Approved - While Apple is ostensibly the gatekeeper in terms of specific applications finding their way into the App Store, in practice it is not testing every app, delving into every nook and cranny. To be clear, in a more open platform like Windows, MacOS, etc., you have NONE of these controls but the point is that consumers who assume that App Store apps are Apple tested and approved, are sleeping with a false sense of security, as underscored by the recent de-listing of the the multi-player gaming app, Aurora Feint. The app has a community feature, which if turned on, delves into the user's Contacts List, sends it to the developer's servers in an unencrypted fashion and then uses that data to recommend other friends who might be available to play the game with. The bugaboos are lack of transparency that the developer was doing this and the fact that personal data is being sent unsecurely. In this case, more a by-product of an amateur developer working with limited time and resources than something nefarious but it suggests some measure of caveat emptor necessary as a consumer. See 'Network Borders' link below for more fodder on the topic of Apple's governance role.
UPDATE 2: Apple's App Store sees first month sales of $30 million (via AppleInsider) - Users of Apple's new App Store have downloaded more than 60 million programs, generating a total of about $30 million in sales since the service launched one month ago, according to Apple chief executive Steve Jobs. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published early Monday morning, Jobs revealed that while the majority of those applications were free, the App Store still raked in an average $1 million a day from pay-per-download programs -- or an estimated annual sales rate of $360 million. "This thing's going to crest a half a billion, soon," he said. "Who knows, maybe it will be a $1 billion marketplace at some point in time. I've never seen anything like this in my career for software."
- iPhone SDK - mobile reasons for optimism: why the iPhone Universe is a big deal.
- iPhone 2.0 - swinging for the fences: an analysis of the WWDC Keynote by Steve Jobs.
- iPod touch: the first mainstream Wi-Fi mobile platform?
- Envisioning the Social Map-lication: where all of my stuff (contacts, music, content) converge into the cloud and back to Me.
- iPhone Universe: Network Borders, Kill Switches and the Core Location: why Apple proactively governing third-party applications via backdoor kill switches and the like is a good thing.