The Dawn of the "micro app" - Why Smartphone Apps Are Proving Google Wrong

If Google's strategy to move apps to the web is valid, why are there 57,000 apps for the iPhone?

Apple iPhones, Google Android phones, BlackBerries, Microsoft Windows Mobile, and the Palm Pre all bring us mobile platforms that can do more than just make phone calls, check our calendars and do email. It's now all about "the apps", the mobile applications that come with and can be downloaded or synchronized onto your Smartphone that really makes them powerful. Apple's now cliché "there's an app for that" advertising is backed up by claims of over 75,000 apps for the iPhone. How many of those 75,000 apps are actually useful or will ever be found by their intended markets is quite another question, but that at least shows the interest of companies and software developers to get their wares onto mobile platforms where customers can use them.

It doesn't seem like a day goes by where I find out another company, online service or product idea appears for my iPhone. This morning Weight Watchers was advertising their new iPhone app in my email in box. Over the weekend I installed a beta version of a combo social networking meets business information app, and my father and I sat and talked about Trapster.com, the latest app I'd downloaded onto my iPhone why waiting for our group to finish their shopping.

For some time I've believe in what I refer to as the "micro app" strategy for mobile platforms. ("Micro" as in small app, not micro as in micro computer.) I say micro app rather than mobile for a very good reason. It's not just about creating a mobile app that's a squashed down version of a larger PC app, website or online service. The Micro app concept is about two key principles: 1) narrow, targeted, get in and out, capabilities combined into a mobile app, and 2) performing tasks, whether personal or professional, at the very moment when you think of it or need to perform the task. (These are some of the key principles behind my most recent startup, Vozle.) I would argue that all successful mobile apps today work to attain one if not both of these principles.

Take the Weight Watchers app for example. It's all about finding out point values while you're standing in the isle at the supermarket, entering your meal information before you leave the restaurant and forget to record it, and having your meal plan with you whether you are at home, work or on vacation. Does the app do everything the online Weight Watchers site does? Probably not, but that's okay. It can be browsed using your mobile browser or used back on your PC. The apps is for those tasks I need or want to perform right now.

Another example of a micro app is the series of iLike music artist apps. You could go check out Michael W. Smith's website on your phone or PC, but now music artists like Michael have an iLike iPhone app dedicated to their music, touring schedule, blog, twitter feed, photos, videos, games, etc. It's an app dedicated to just that one artist.

Another is the Chipotle restaurant app. Enter your order for a Chipotle burrito prior to arriving, or even find out where the closest Chipotle is from your current location. Yes, you could do this by doing a Google search, looking up restaurant addresses, or even do the same using Google maps on the iPhone. But providing that in one micro app brings the tasks you want to do when using a smartphone into one targeted, narrow app. Find the nearest Chipotle, check their menu, look specials or coupons, or order a meal all from one iPhone app.

Now you could argue that all of the things the Weight Watchers, iLike and Chipotle mobile apps do are available on their respective websites, and the answer is that's true. But the phenomena of the micro app is that many users would rather download an app to perform these tasks rather than experience or struggle with performing those same tasks by searching Google, finding the right website, and use mobile website interface (even with a very good mobile browser like Safari.) One app icon takes you right into the app that doesn't do everything, just everything you want. The fact that micro apps are replacing (or at least acting as an alternative to) using a mobile web browser is something I find quite fascinating. It's one of the reasons I don't believe like I once did that the future is about everything moving to a web interface. Micro apps are disproving that idea.

Computer World actually has very good article about the lessons others have learned about creating mobile apps. One excellent point the article makes is that you very much need to be watching and learning how customer patterns are shifting to mobile use, the devices customers use, and what they are doing from those mobile devices.

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