iPad May Be Magical. Apps Aren’t. Here’s Why.

82 Comments

It has been nearly a year since I first came in close contact with the original iPad. It blew my mind, and since then, it has become a daily accompaniment. I create content on my MacBook Air, but I spend a lot of time consuming content and media on the device. In fact, if I had to guess, I use my iPad as much as I use my notebook computer.

Steve Jobs called it magical. Fast-forward to today, and I (and about 15 million others) agree. Wednesday, Jobs announced the newer version of the iPad. It’s lighter, thinner, has more curves, and it’s definitely beefier. What’s more, it has many new capabilities: cameras and gyroscope for example. In other words, it’s more magical.

However, if iPad, the device, is more magical, the applications (apps) for the device are anything but. For nearly a year, I’ve been waiting (and waiting) for experiences befitting the device and its hardware capabilities. Sure, there’s Flipboard, but as the saying goes, one swallow don’t make a summer. And same goes for the iPhone and other smart platforms.

Let me explain. On an iPad, you have four elements — big screen, touch, connectivity and location — that make it unique. The iPad 2 has added two cameras and a gyroscope to the mix, making the device even more potent. And yet, we’ve seen application after application come to market as just an incremental improvement of the web or desktop versions of the same (or similar) application.

Some of the magazine apps developed for the iPad are just simply horrible, turning out to be no more than bloated multi-media versions of the print publications. Even The Daily, the made-for-iPad publication from the house of Rupert Murdoch, is nowhere close to being able to leverage the iPad platform, despite all the help from Apple itself.

Why? Because apps, content and consumption experiences on iPads and other tablets need to be rethought and re-imagined by combining the hardware capabilities with software. As Steve Jobs said in his keynote yesterday:

Our competitors are looking at this like it’s the next PC market. That is not the right approach to this. These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive. The hardware and software need to intertwine more than they do on a PC.

Since the iPad is connected and location-aware, I want my news (or news reader) application to serve me information with a local (or a regional context) as a starting point. Since news lives on an always-on connection, it should be near real-time. More importantly, since it’s again, news, on a touch-based device, it needs to be optimized for touch actions that are core to the iPad (or Android) platform so one can quickly consume the information.

It’s not just media apps; even games on these new platforms aren’t leveraging the capabilities of the platform. Earlier this week, Neil Young — co-founder of mobile games developer, ngmoco, now a division of DeNA — stopped by my office for a chat. I asked him if he’d seen games that leveraged the uniqueness of the smartphone and tablet platforms.

“I don’t think we are anywhere near to fulfilling the potential of the platform,” said Young. “The games that are popular today are either casual games and upgrades/variants of the games that have been hits on the web.” Like me, he’s looking for games that use touch, location and connectivity in a way that’s unique and entertaining. “On the tablets, I am finding it hard to find a great tablet experience.”

Like everyone else, Young too has been impressed with Flipboard, which has introduced a magazine-like user experience to iPad users. But that still doesn’t build on the uniqueness of tablet platforms.

Ronald Kuetemeier is one of my many super-smart readers. In an email, he pointed out the problem with the apps today is that many of the app developers are thinking with PC computer modality. What does he mean?

A spreadsheet may make perfect sense on a big screen device that takes its data input via a keyboard. Trying to retrofit it to a device with a smaller screen that uses touch for interaction is an exercise in futility. If I’ve used one of these apps — QuickOffice and Apple’s Numbers — it’s mostly as a way to read files attached to emails or shared via DropBox.

I’m hoping things will change in the near future. Yesterday, Apple showed off GarageBand for iPad 2, and to me, that was the highlight of the event (ahead of the smart-covers). Why? Because this is an app that was putting iPad 2’s capabilities to maximum use. This is an app made for the iPad.

Even from afar, it made sense: Touch is a better way of strumming guitars than using a mouse. Similarly, when hitting the drums, that the iPad’s accelerometer can detect the strength with which you’re hitting the screen could help translate into a better music. Apple could even take this app a step further.

Say, I’m in India (or Brazil). The app should surface some of the local musical instruments (and sounds) based on my location. Since iPad has a live connection, these add-ons should seamlessly download to the device in the background. Forget emailing the creations; the app should simply allow us to share the tunes via services like Sound Cloud.

Today, Stuck in Customs, the folks behind 100 Cameras and I, announced their app for the iPad 2, and boy, have they put the platform to good use. I saw the demo of it earlier, and I can’t wait to get my hands on this application, for it does leverage the hardware.

Another app you’ll find impressive is Shadow Cities, a real-world MMORPG developed by Finnish startup Grey Area, which recently scored over $2 million in funding from Index Ventures. It’s currently the number-one game app on the Finnish iTunes app store, lapping global phenomenon Angry Birds in the process.

What makes it so unique? It uses your real-life locations (with maps like you’ve never seen before) and real people, and puts them in a game-like environment. It doesn’t need any typing; touch is what makes it fun. And since it’s connected, it uses your social graph to build a whole new immersive experience.

Though it’s made for an iPhone, I believe this is an app that foretells the future of applications that really put an iPad to work, and in process, create magic.

[wufoo form=”z7m8z1″ username=”gigaom” height=”300″]

82 Comments

plugintodan

It’s like what Arcade Fire did to music videos. Made them relevant again, if only for the short period of time that was its viral life cycle.

John Stewart

There’s no doubt that the iPad – and now iPad 2 – offers companies and developers seemingly endless possibilities. Despite this, and as you mention, companies are only scratching the surface of this device’s potential with the technologies they’re incorporating within their offerings. The iPad provides countless ways of interacting with consumers, such as through augmented reality, swiping, or location-awareness. The problems arise when due to companies’ desire to make their offerings available across various platforms and devices, they sacrifice the native capabilities of the device or tablet. I work for Kony, and one way to overcome this and implement these capabilities is by using a single application definition. This allows companies to generate mobile offerings on multiple OSs and devices (not just iPad) without sacrificing their native capabilities—taking full advantage of each device’s potential and creating a more “magical” user experience.

Justin Binder

You tell us a lot about what ‘you’ want from an app. That’s the problem, it’s subjective. I’m pretty sick of ‘app culture’.

Brendan Lane Larson

Om,

Thanks for writing up your post today. I can’t help but wonder what News Corp. would have done on the iPad if John B. Evans was still with us [1]. In the 1990s John was Rupert Murdoch’s digital media guru and visionary within News Corp., having been appointed by Rupert to run News Electronic Data (NED). John was also a friend of One Laptop’s Nicholas Negroponte. NED was working on some phenomenally creative stuff in the pre-web pre-iOS era namely using General Magic’s technology, Magic Cap and Telescript. For those who think the “cloud” meme is something new, hip and fashionable today, it was very much alive in the General Magic era (we had clouds sketched all over white boards then). I had the rare opportunity to work with John and NED. Like Steve Jobs, John was a creative genius and imagination deficit was not a problem though he and General Magic were a good 15 years ahead of their time. Remember Microsoft’s Bob? Bob was a poor knock off of NED’s Marilyn digital travel agent / avatar [2] (no surprise that Microsoft screwed it up).

Apple played a leading role as a General Magic partner, but the duo creative genius paths of Steve Jobs and John Evans unforutnately didn’t cross because Steve was running NeXT on Chesapeake Bay Drive in Redwood City at the time (at least not what I was aware of — my then business was founded on NeXTSTEP).

If John were around today there’s a good chance he’d have chalked up a killer app or two for the iPad / iPhone (perhaps Android too). Maybe some of the wise and insightful General Magic founders like Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson still have it in them to revision the magic of the past to the world that has emerged today?

– Brendan Lane Larson

[1] http://www.johnbevans.com/
[2] http://www.johnbevans.com/gallery/album01/photo14

beenyweenies

I wholeheartedly agree with Om’s desire for better apps, but it’s not a problem of creativity, laziness or even an understanding of user needs. It’s the economy (or in this case, the economics) stupid.

A development team can create a fantastic, amazing, life changing application, but to do so the app must to work well with iPods, iPhones and the iPad, which dramatically increases development costs. They also need to make sure it works just as well on older devices, or they risk losing a major portion of the market and having their app completely destroyed on the App Store user ratings. This whole model of development is expensive to say the least, and puts hard limits on how extensively developers can even leverage newer hardware or OS features. For example, any new app that truly leverages the iPad2’s dual cores or built in cameras will lose all business from iPad1 owners, and be absolutely savaged in the app store reviews for it. There is no question this approach would harm your app sales (and possibly your brand), and is only counterbalanced by unproven benefits of “pushing the envelope.”

Point two is that Apple’s system is in fact closed (which is fine) and they are extremely controlling and touchy about what will and will not be approved, including how your navigation is presented, how it can access remote data etc. The non-stop flow of arbitrary rejections has weakened developer’s will to push any limits at all, and the Apple developer guidelines do impose very real limits on how creative or groundbreaking your app can even be. To make matters worse, Apple is constantly changing the rules of game. As a simple example, apps like Kindle, monthly magazines etc. just got their butts handed to them by Apple’s new subscription policy, and their entire financial model is now in jeopardy. There are dozens of similar scenarios where developers went out on a limb, and Apple chopped the entire tree down beneath them. This is NOT the way to inspire devs to take risks and build expensive apps for the platform.

Once a dev team’s iOS app is live, they hand over 30% of every dollar to Apple (which again is fine and reasonable, whatever), and most iOS users will, as a matter of course, turn their nose up at any application that costs more than 4-5 dollars. This boxes developers in to a pretty rigid model – they can’t reasonably charge more than X for the product, will owe Apple 30% of the haul, and given the sheer number of new apps released each month they can only reasonably assume a modest level of sales. This puts a pretty hard limit on development expenses and hence the quality and/or feature set of the app. Unlike other business models, an app’s success isn’t so directly tied to things like marketing budget or even quality of product – it’s very much influenced by timing and luck, and the most successful devs out there have admitted as much. Any developer who ignores these financial constraints is headed toward financial failure, and given the high cost of developing a truly amazing app (as the article is calling for) the prospect of failure is simply too great to be worth the risks.

Finally, good applications are built over time. All of the great software we’ve come to love and use regularly had a version 1.0 that sucked, but over time they improved it. They were only able to do this by charging for the upgrades (therefore recouping on the massive resources poured into ongoing development), which is something that is practically verboten on the iOS platform. Once someone buys your $2 app, they expect frequent, ongoing, absolutely free improvements and upgrades, with no concern over how you as the dev are supposed to finance this cycle.

In short, the entire mobile economy is not a practical environment for developing “amazing” apps just yet. Potential reach doesn’t offset the fact that both iOS and Android have hundreds of thousands of apps available and yours will probably get lost in the shuffle without substantial marketing budget and a dose of real luck. Besides, reach doesn’t matter as much as profit margin – you can sell a million apps but if you’re losing $1 per sale, who cares. Apple can deliver massive, very impressive apps (like GarageBand for iOS) ONLY because they have swimming pools full of money, and they have a direct incentive in releasing marquee applications that showcase the experience/platform, not generating actual revenue from the app. They don’t care one whit if apps like iMovie and GarageBand for iPad make a dime, it’s all about encouraging hardware sales and developer interest.

Apps like Angry Birds didn’t succeed because of the factors called for in this article. It barely even leverages the iOS platform (it really could just be a web-based game), and the underlying concept of physics-based puzzle game wasn’t new or revolutionary. They mostly benefited from major buzz, timing and luck. They admit as much themselves.

Daniel Swanson

Those who blame the economy are indeed also among the lazy who look for excuses or reasons to justify failure.

If Apple had spent any time at all blaming “the economy” they wouldn’t be nearly as prosperous as they are now.

The solution to a bad economy is: DO YOUR JOB. Plain and simple.

That’s what Apple is doing and has done–in particular with setting up an elegant and powerful integrated development system and environment for third party developers to use to produce great products.

Applying the above principle to developers, then, the ACTUAL reason for lackluster apps is that developers of such aren’t doing THEIR jobs–they’re not using Apple’s tools and their own creativity and resources effectively enough so as to produce especially high quality apps.

The programming tools are all there. The ecosystem is there. It’s all waiting to convey quality products to the planet. No excuses from Apple. They’ve done their job.

I don’t want to hear lame excuses like blaming the economy. That’s just laziness, plain and simple.

beenyweenies

Daniel,

I appreciate your point, but I suspect you only read my opening line and therefore missed my point entirely.

It wasn’t about “the economy” but rather the economics of developing mobile apps. It was a long winded post so it’s my own fault, I suppose.

Harsh K

Hi beenyweenies

Your reply is awesome, almost better than Om’s article itself.

Cheers

PXLated

“timing and luck”
Most successful business people I know attribute a very large percentage of their success to just that – It doesn’t just apply to apps.

Daniel Swanson

So I get the feeling that you didn’t understand MY post.

A bad economy results from a relatively wholesale absence of people doing their jobs. It’s a matter of exchange of valuables–too many checks are cashed while the recipients don’t deliver valuable services (work) or products for them.

Slip-shod app development may produce some income. But apparently too few developers have the insight or dedication or creativity to take their products up at least a few notches before putting them on the market.

They think that no app will sell if it’s priced more than a sawbuck, so why invest in a lot of effort beyond that? This is very backwards, self-defeating logic. Of course, they won’t know if their products will command higher prices unless they put out the extra effort–FIRST. Too big a gamble for the lazy ones.

Aaron

Incremental/evolutionary innovation is the safest and cheapest kind. The iPad itself leveraged the existing OS and added only a few new GUI controls to great success. Start simple to see what sticks, then make modest improvements with each iteration. Revolutionary innovation is costly and maybe too risky for many of the small programming shops that keep the app store stocked.

Also from a developers perspective – once you get close to the metal you understand how unmagical/underpowered the first gen hardware was in terms of CPU/GPU. We had to change coding style to squeeze every drop of performance out of the neon core and in the end had to jettison features to keep from overloading the CPU. Try running 2 multitasking DSP audio apps and you too can bring your iPad to its knees.

The iPad 2 hardware upgrades are just what we need to push forward… no doubled/retina resolution to tax the hardware, just more horsepower.

Per-Ola

great article with valid points. And while seamless downloads are fun, wireless providers slam us with hopeless roaming charges for global data, so it’ll be while until I want my iPhone or iPad to connect and “pull” content automatically.
Just as I do not allow anyone to automatically access my bank account…

Mr. Blackman

Part of the problem is a lack of investment in these more pure-play iOS apps. I’m currently working on a location based casual iPad / iPhone game and find it difficult to raise the required dollars to get it off the ground. Investors seem to love the concept but appear to shy away from ideas that are so tied to a platform, such as the iOS. As someone who has used (and hated) the Droid devices and is now (thanks to Verizon) entirely on iOS devices, I believe that focusing on the most popular (by app installs and dollars) OS at this time makes the most sense and crossing the bridge to the potential Android market later.

Magician

Try these two apps on iPad.

Tap Fish (watch any 4-9 year olds play this and you’ll say their experience is magical!)

WebEx (hassle free, anywhere/anytime meetings with High quality video included)

As for media/news, I guess it is upon you guys to build one for gigaom.com ;-)

Arteom

I absolutely agree with writer. It’s really magical. I think, that the Ipad is one of the most perfect invention for last years.

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Marcus

This is a really interesting article, Great Job! I think that a lack of app quality is fascinating given the idea that apple has already built such a good purchase culture with there app store -something android struggles with- I think you can blame the print apps on apple itself though. They wish to be so controlling of the publishers that I think there may be an idea that jumping through the hoops and getting the content out is more important than app quality. Or, maybe there is more to this… WHat if publishers are intentionally keeping the app quality on ipad low and will develop better android apps as a way to get apple to loosen up its regulations. But what do I know. Great article regardless.

http://www.illumintech.net

Nicholas

It took nearly a year for the release of the original SDK, so the iPhone’s success was established. The iPad was a question in many customer’s and developer’s minds. It will take time, and usage patterns are not established.

Treating the iPad like a large iPhone or a small laptop is wrong. Past that we are only recently seeing what people actually do with the things. You’ll see many more this year, now that most of the competition is being dismissed.

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