App is Crap: APPsolute Power Corrupts

image I was living in Europe in 2000 when the first WAP phones (Wireless Access Protocol) were introduced.  These phones were so over hyped.  They were going to bring the Internet to your mobile phones ushering in the era of “m-commerce.”  Gag.

I had just returned from living in Japan where I witnessed the hugely successful launch of i-mode by NTT DoCoMo so I knew the potential that the mobile web would ultimately bring, but I saw so many flaws in the launch of WAP.  But like lemmings, every company in the market rushed to proclaim they were launching WAP versions of their products.

I was attending a major industry conference in Barcelona at the height of the WAP excitement.  I was on stage in front of several hundreds of conference attendees.  The moderator asked each of us panelists the asinine question, “tell us what you’re doing about WAP!”  (you know,  as in “tell us what you’re doing about China?” or “tell us what you’re doing about location-based services?”).  The panelists went down the line and like lemmings announced their plans with glee.

It came to me.  With 5 years’ of British sarcasm under my belt I said, “WAP is CRAP.  We’re doing nothing.”  And I refused to say more.

Within a year WAP became the laughing stock of the mobile industry.  It was slow.  It was hard to use.  It required content sites to develop totally new content.  There was no engagement.  In Chris Dixon’s words, it wasn’t designed for normals.

Absolute Power Corrupts, Absolutely

Fast forward a nearly a decade.  I’m now a VC.  Everybody and their mothers are coming into my offices proclaiming that their developing the latest iPhone App.  Kleiner Perkins launches an iFund.  The new manta is “what are you doing about the iPhone.”  I have the same gag reflexes.  The model is all wrong.

image So I attended a Red Herring conference in Laguna Niguel hanging out with Dharmesh Shah, James Citron, Rob Theis and others.  The topic is “The Future of Mobile Applications” and I pronounce, “App is Crap.”  It is a step backward for our industry.  It is a waste for most brands.  It is a channel disguised in business clothing.

I would argue that if Apple’s app model continues to succeed it is bad for your health.  You – being members of the technology community.  I know that I’m into FanBoy territory and am ready to be attacked.  Before you let me have it let me say I am a FanBoy of Apple products.  I am typing this on my brand new 15″ MacBook Pro.  I ran this morning with my iPod in tow.  I own an iPod Touch (not an iPhone – my house in Brentwood gets literally ZERO AT&T bars).  I buy all my music through iTunes and even buy some videos there.  I can’t be more of a FanBay of their products.  But I’m with Jason Calacanis.  I think Apple has become corrupted and its dominance in mobile is not good for the industry.

1. App is one step forward, two steps back.

In 1999 I launched my first company, BuildOnline, a SaaS-based (back then we were ASP’s) content management platform for large-scale engineering and construction projects.  In the same year launched a SaaS CRM platform to compete with Siebel.  They pronounced “The End of Software.”  It was typical Marc Benioff marketing hyperbole but it was very effective.

image Their company, my company and countless others espoused cloud-based applications.  We had all worked in the software industry for a decade and saw the problems of on-premise software.  We evangelized to customer about the problems of on premise software.

– It is expensive for software companies to build for heterogeneous environments.  They therefore have large cost bases and have to pass on those costs to you.
– You have a data problem.  Your data is trapped on a client device (a PC), leading to security risks and replication problems
– You can’t access your data easily when you’re in multiple locations
– It’s harder to share data across multiple users
– Etc., etc.

When we launched browsers weren’t very functionally rich.  Therefore if you want to change just one field of data we had to redraw the entire screen.  That meant that user experience was not as rich as it would be for a client-side app.  But the trade-off in terms of flexibility and costs were enormous.  Enter the huge innovation in AJAX (asynchronous Javascript and XML), which let us redraw individual portions of the screen and therefore mimic user behavior on on-premise applications.  Enter Flash, which gave us a multimedia development environment.  The power of the web increased dramatically and “Cloud Computing” began to take a huge leap forward.

These days no serious company thinks about building on premise software companies any more.

Enter Apple.  They have popularize iPhone Apps.  You can argue that it is a necessary innovation to enable groups of users to interact with device in a way that they never could on carrier portals.  I agree.  To an extent.

I was so frustrated working with carriers in the 1990’s.  They were frustrated that despite having the (monopoly) infrastructure that brought you the Internet, the majority of innovation and profits went to Silicon Valley startups.  These same people later ran the mobile companies that were either part of or spun out of carriers.  And they swore they’d never let the application companies do it to them again.  So we as consumers (and as a tech industry) languished for 7 years.

image You either had to do “on deck / on portal” deals where your app was rolled out through the carriers sh*tty operating platform or you had to go “off deck” which meant you had no customers.  And being gateways to the customer they naturally extracted their pound of flesh from mobile application developers.  And they were slow to approve people.

So I greeted Apple’s entry into the market with great excitement.  ”Finally the hegemony is broken!  Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead!”  Apple would be the first major device sold where the carrier’s crappy software wasn’t on the phone.  We would herald in a new era of innovation.  Google would soon follow with their own phones, it was rumored.  The mobile web would finally be open!  Or would it?

So Apple has encouraged application developers to set loose building apps.  We now have a couple of hundred thousand applications developed.  The web browsers are as immature as the Internet browsers were in the late 90’s.  And “native” (those installed on the device) applications can take advantage of features that the browser can’t like the accelerometer (which detects motion), the GPS (to get your location) and the camera.

But here are the major problems if this model holds:

– Every developer now has to have an iPhone development team.
– Every application has to be submitted to Apple for approval.  They are now a bottleneck.  When you change an application it has to be resubmitted – however minor the change.
– Apple is the new “gateway” that can extract a toll from you (sound familiar?).  Apple wants to take a major share of the revenue.
– Data within the applications is locked into the device
– Flash is not supported, which means that all assets you’ve developed for the Internet that work in Flash are worthless for this device
– Apple has sent out signals such as that they might like to own location-based mobile advertising.  If you encroach on this territory they may stop you or blow you out. They may do this / they may not.  They may encroach in other “interesting” areas.  They may not.
– Approvals are a black box.

And this is just the start.  Now the real problems.

– If you assume that Apple always dominates the market for the mobile web (a bad assumption) then they have absolute power.  If Google is sometimes flawed in it’s “do no evil” mission, you gotta believe that Larry and Sergey deep down believe this mantra.  Steve Jobs?  Erm.  Not so much.  He has done much good for our industry.  But “do no evil?”  See Point 4 below.

If you assume that there are many players, you’re probably right.

– Let’s start with Google’s Android.  You’ve just hired your iPhone development team for you app.  They’re super busy developing a new version of your product because, guess what, Apple changed it’s terms of service to allow in-app purchasing.  So you rush to develop a new monetization strategy which means rebuilding your app.  It’s taking time to finish the product because you’re super expensive iPhone developers (they’re in high demand) are not as good as you like (they’re super high in demand).  Should you now hire Android developers? Can your iPhone developers be good at both?  Do you have enough resource to cover both?
– And that Palm Pre.  I heard it’s pretty slick and Sprint seems to be pushing it really hard. I heard they have an App Store.  Let’s look into it. Maybe we could ship our app and see how it does?
– Oh, wait.  There’s that RIM company with the Blackberry.  Should we have an app for that?  They have a super relevant and high-end installed base including people like Mark Suster who never gave up his Blackberry since Apple only offers itself on a super sucky network for which their is ZERO bars of coverage at his house in Brentwood.  But their browser sucks, their app environment sucks, the developer community isn’t strong.  But we need device coverage, right?
– Oh, wait.  I need some Microsoft OS coverage.  I know Windows CE is dead despite having like a 100-year head start on Google.  But Windows is now making a push with Windows 7 Mobile.  Maybe we could get an application out early for that before everybody else does?
– And how about Symbian?  We’re going to want to develop for all those Europeans, right?  And Nokia has theOvi Store thing, right?

Let’s see.  We’ve got two guys developing on the iPhone, two on Android, one on Palm Pre, one on Blackberry, o.5 on Windows 7 Mobile, 0.5 on Symbian and 4 doing QA on all these freaking iterations.   Man, I sure hope there is no more innovation in this field or we are Fawked!  Oh, frack.  There is this iPad thing is coming out.  Better set aside some budget for that.

I know that there is a period of time where apps need to reign.  But I for one am betting that the future is “the mobile web” not the “the mobile app.”  There will always be some apps that have reasons to be native on devices but I am betting that serious innovation will happen on mobile browsers and that the future will so most apps folded into the cloud.  We’ve already seen it once in the PC era.  It’s the best thing for our health.  We can build for one primary browser (like we do for Firefox on the desktop today) and then figure out how to get the rest working with whatever Microsoft builds.

It will be 3-5 years before this transition takes place.  Much money will be gained and lost in this period.  And somebody will win in the transition.  Wise companies will plan for this “great porting” to take place.  Unfortunately it won’t be in the next 3 years so we have to live through this temporary era.

2. Most companies are wasting their money on apps.

In addition to believing that the app movement is bad for our industry I also believe that most brands should not have apps.  I have been pitched by too many companies that want to help every brand discover their inner iPhone self.  They have kits to help the The Gap, Banana Republic, McDonalds, Kmart, Kraft or whatever other brand develop iPhone apps (I made these brands up – I have no idea whether they specifically have apps).  But I don’t believe consumers are going to want to have 500 apps on their phones.

I don’t believe there is any compelling reason for The Gap, Bananan Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch to have apps on my phone.  What they need is simple.  Websites!  And I can visit them on my mobile browser when I want to.  So in this iPhone Goldrush many companies will make bucks selling picks and axes to iPhone gold prospectors but most will be fool’s gold.

3. Apple is a channel, not a business model.

I see too many companies that are building iPhone App companies.  iPhone is not a business model unless you’re Apple.  It’s a channel.  It’s a way to reach your customers.  And single channel businesses are vulnerable to the vagrancies of the market place.  If you’re a “pure mobile” company that’s fine.  There is a strategy for that.  But you need to think in terms of broader distribution.

4. Absolute Power Corrupts, Absolutely.  

Finally, to pick up on Jason Calacanis’s point – I’m worried that Apple’s success might be going to its head.  Lord Acton in the UK once famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Apple now has absolute power.  Not 100% but they have HUGE power.  They broke the hegemony in the on-deck carrier model only to emerge with temporary monopolist tendencies.  Now Google is going to try and keep them in check.

image Apples actions speak for themselves:

– They don’t allow Flash on their devices.  Very knowledgeable and cynical people I’ve spoken with have given me a flavor of why.  There are so many free Flash games now where the owners of the handset and OS wouldn’t be able to have a cut in the revenue if they were widely distributed on iPhones.  In stead, you have to go through the Apple gatekeeper and pay an Apple toll to develop applications for their phones.  This isn’t open innovation.  This is a return to the carrier mindset.  People like Fred Wilson have written about this topic (and gotten attacked – so I’m prepared for it!)
– They control the approval process for new apps.  Anything they don’t like – they have absolute veto power.  Full stop.
– Example – the Google Voice kerfuffle.  We’ll never really know why Apple has blocked Google Voice.
– Want an iPhone but live in Brentwood like Mark Suster does?  Well you’ll have ZERO bars.  So you don’t have an option.  Why does iPhone only come on the AT&T network?  Because AT&T has given Apple the most lucrative deal of all the operators and pays handsomely to maintain this exclusivity.  In an open and free world this shouldn’t happen.  It’s total bollocks.

I’m willing to fund companies in the interim.  I hope to soon announce an investment that relies on the mobile application infrastructure in the short-to-mid term.  But I said to the CEO that I would only invest if he believes that they long-term is The Mobile Web and that our plan is to build something that can be successful in the intervening period but with the objective or porting as the mobile web browsers become more capable.

Guys, if Cloud Computing made sense for our desktop applications it’s certainly going to make sense for our mobile lives, too.  All the same rationale holds.

[Editor’s Note: Mark cross-posted this to his personal blog. –mrh]