It’s the apps, stupid

Why did Apple finally approve Opera Mini for the iPhone? Because on smartphones, browsers don’t matter.

One of the most important messages to come out of last week’s iPhone 4 sneak preview event at Apple has kind of fallen off the radar. In the iAd part of the presentation, Jobs said, “Search has not happened on a mobile device like on the desktop. People spend all their time in apps; they go into Yelp and don’t do general searches. This is where the opportunity is—within apps, not search.”

This is a major departure from the message coming from Apple in the early days of the iPhone. In 2007, it was all about Mobile Safari, searching and web apps. Three years later, the platform has matured and a different use case has emerged. Most iPhone users don’t use Safari all that much. Even when they search, they do it in discrete apps rather than in Safari. When I want to find out who some guest star is in one of my favorite TV shows, I don’t open Safari or even the Google or Bing apps on my iPhone. I open the IMDB app and look it up from there. It’s faster, more targeted and an experience designed for the iPhone screen size.

Jobs gets this, and Apple’s new ad platform is designed to exploit that. Google figured out a decade ago that people are much more receptive to ads if they’re targeted to them and their specific interests. With iAd, Apple has removed a lot of the guesswork even further. If you’re using an app, you’re probably going to be most receptive to ads with the same focus as the app you’re using. This gives Apple even more reliable targeting than Google’s use of keywords.

But there’s another side to this as well, one that I think is interesting in an of itself. Google’s ads live, for the most part, in browsers, because that’s how most people interact with the internet on “big” computers. As a matter of fact, I’m typing this post on a netbook (though I started it in the WordPress app on my iPhone) and the only application I’m running is Firefox. In various tabs, though, I have Gmail, Google Docs, Pandora, Sobees for Twitter/Facebook and Meebo for IM.

But on my iPhone, I can go months without even opening Safari. It just doesn’t factor into my workflow, even though I use all the same web-based services on my iPhone that I use on my netbook and my desktop. The difference is that on my iPhone I have discreet app for each service. I have a Meebo app for IM that sends me push notifications when I have a new message. I use Reeder to keep up on my RSS feeds in Google Reader. I use Tweetie (soon to be just Twitter for iPhone) for Twitter. When I find an article I want to read later in either, I send it over to Instapaper, and read them in the Instapaper app. I use QuickOffice Connect to edit Google Docs directly, the iPhone’s Calendar app for my Google Calendar, Action Lists to give my Toodledo to-do list a GTD workflow.

So when Apple approved Opera Mini for the iPhone last week, I wasn’t surprised at all. Apple has demonstrated that they understand very well that browsers don’t matter on smartphones. Opera Mini is just another app, no more useful to the average iPhone owner than Safari, which is to say not very useful at all. It’s likely to be ignored most of the time, because that’s what happens to smartphone browsers. Smartphones are different than “computers” as we traditionally think of them, and while both platforms need access to the internet, how they do it varies greatly. The size of the screen makes a qualitative, not quantitative, difference in how the device is used and how it accesses information.

And if you think that last sentence means that devices like the Apple iPad and Microsoft Courier are something altogether different from both smartphones and full computers, well, that’s a post for another time.

4 thoughts on “It’s the apps, stupid”

  1. I think you're missing something. Browsers aren't just about browsing, they've become application platforms of their own. With a shortcut to a browser based app you can use it like just about any app and barely realize you're in a browser. This doesn't apply to all apps (yet). But as we see more robust standards (HTML 5) that line between browser and app will start to blur. In the long run I believe the browser will win, at least with some kinds of apps because it allows a much easier path to cross platform development, minor changes instead of entirely new apps and the experience is very similar if not identical. Obviously this won't work for everything, but it will definitely blur the line more and blur the line across platform types (phones, tablets, PC's).

  2. The original iPhone was missing important things to make the browser as an application platform, like Flash. Apple was too shortsighted with how they tried to implement it. We're talking about the future, not the past.

  3. Apple is proving increasingly with the iPad that Flash support isn’t required after all.

    I’ve used the iPhone primarily with web apps. It’s really easy, you can even put icons to them on your homescreen just like native apps. But it’s not the same. Google has done some amazing things with their webapps to get around Apple’s iron grip on the App Store, but when push comes to shove, I’d still rather use Reeder than the web app of Google Reader.

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