Apps are sparking latest computing paradigm shift
NET RESULTS: In Palo Alto two weeks ago, my mother and I joined longtime family friends for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner. I was the only person there born in a time more recent than the Great Depression.
The topic of conversation? Apps. Two at our table huddled over their iPhones, demonstrating some of their favourites. “There’s a topic for your column,” laughed the app-wary husband of an app-loving wife. “The Ancients and their apps.”
While half of the 70- and 80-somethings at our table were happily app-free and intended to stick with their old-style mobiles rather than move to a smartphone, the other half will talk app-talk as fluently as their grandchildren.
That’s not surprising when you realise that the iPhone has significant penetration into the over-55 market. According to ComScore MobiLens, as of the end of last year, the number of people over 55 using smartphones in the US and Europe was about the same as users aged 18-24.
And according to analyst Nielsen, as of last January, 22 per cent of mobile subscribers in the US aged 64 and over had a smartphone. That figure is likely higher in Europe, as smartphone penetration is greater over here. Apps are the leading reason anyone would opt for a smartphone over an old-style handset these days. We also download millions of them to our tablet computers, and even to our more traditional desktops and laptops.
I was thinking about apps again as I journeyed back to Ireland from the US. United Airlines not only had huge banners promoting their app hung across their terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, but the beginning of their in-flight safety video features a long plug for the app, too.
How did we ever live without apps? Yet the concept only hit the mainstream with the launch of the iPhone, less than five years ago. Since then, apps have turned computing upside down. Computing pioneer Hermann Hauser (the co-founder of Acorn Computer and chipmaker ARM, and venture capital firm Amadeus) told a Dublin audience recently that he considers apps to be the next new displacement wave in computing, catching out some of the existing computing giants and reshaping the way we use computing devices.
“No one understood that apps would become the new way in which people would interact with their computers,” he noted during a talk on the history of innovation in computing. He thinks apps aren’t simply an entertaining computing sub-feature – they are rapidly becoming a new computing paradigm that will likely present a serious challenge to the sellers of operating systems, such as Microsoft.
Apps are operating-system agnostic. If we all increasingly move towards apps for most of our day-to-day computing needs, the operating system running our devices will matter less and less. It may well turn out that the operating systems easiest to develop apps for will become dominant.
If that operating system is a low-cost or free open-source OS – as is the case already with Google’s Android – device buyers may be increasingly unlikely to pay a premium for an OS, like Microsoft’s or Apple’s.
Microsoft is most under threat here, though, because Apple’s OS is tied directly to Apple hardware, and thus is an “invisible” purchase with stylish hardware.
But Microsoft’s dominance as the provider of Windows to computer and device manufacturers is seen to be at risk due to the failure of the OS to appeal greatly to app developers.
Opportunity for Windows 8?
The app store for the Windows phone has a fraction of the offerings available on iPhone or Android. Will its new Windows 8, which is designed with a touch interface that works not just on devices but also laptops and desktop monitors that are touch-enabled, prove more enticing?
Microsoft must be praying it will, though the signs so far are that few are rushing to pound out apps for the new OS. Yet, the aesthetically pleasing user interface made up of colourful tiles would seem innately app-friendly, and some pundits believe Windows 8 will be transformative for computing (it has already spawned an extraordinary variety of touch-enabled laptops and desktops). It may therefore, be a lifeline for a company many see as increasingly behind the times.
If you are one of those that shies away from apps, though, you may find yourself increasingly left behind. If app-based computing is the next big wave, sticking with your old app-less approach will be as strange as insisting on using punchcards on a mainframe. Computing for the Ancients, indeed.