Mobile Apps Are the New Content

Last week I posted on Twitter, “Mobile apps are the new content,” and I was surprised at the number of responses, many of which strongly disagreed. Anne Thomas Manes commented, “I disagree: Still need a model to support content delivery to mobile devices. i.e., apps and content are different things. We have good models for delivering apps, but not content, e.g. delivering e-books.”

So let me explain my post without the limitation of 140 characters.

When mobile devices began including decent browsers, publishers repackaged their content as small-format web pages. But now that the iPhone, Android-based devices and others allow users to download and install apps, publishers are instead wrapping their content inside dedicated applications. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were among the first to do so. Now even local newspapers, NPR and other print, television, radio and podcasting outlets are doing the same. Why bother? Why not just settle for browser-based views?

First it’s a matter of controlling the user experience. Particularly for streamed and downloaded audio and video, you can do a far better job using a device’s application framework than within a browser window. But even more important to publishers is the opportunity for persistence. When you retrieve content with a browser, you have the option of setting a bookmark for the publisher’s web site.  But if the publisher can convince you to download a dedicated app to your mobile device, it’s there (complete with icon) until you delete it. In the iTunes store many of these content-wrapping apps are “Free!” Well, so are those publisher’s web pages, but that just doesn’t sound as good as getting a free application, does it?

Back in the 1970s, we paid thousands of dollars for applications on minicomputers. In the ’80s, with the advent of PCs, most apps (word processors and spreadsheets, for example) cost a few hundred dollars. When the Internet arrived in the 1990’s, we bought applications for US$29.95. The trend is obvious: roughly an order of magnitude decrease per decade. Now in the 2000’s we’ve followed that trend down to the US$1.00 level. Of course this goes hand-in-hand with the increased volume of application purchases and the decreased costs of software development and distribution, so the economics continue to make sense. (One developer can write and publish a simple app on his own. That wasn’t the case in the days of complex programs delivered on floppies or CDs. Consider that iLike.com will build an iPhone app for your band for only $195.)

My comment that “Mobile apps are the new content” also refers to the impulse-buy nature of mobile apps. What was the first impulse-buy content for mobile devices? Ring tones. Next, as Apple rewrote the rules of music distribution, came full-length songs for US$0.99. We’ve learned to purchase music online as whimsically as we buy magazines or chewing gum at the supermarket checkout counter. But think about applications. They used to be only for our desktop and laptop computers. And we certainly didn’t download and install apps as casually as we now buy music. But mobile apps are different. We now download them on a whim, particularly the free ones. And have you ever bought a 99-cent app just to check it out and maybe never used it again? That’s a buying pattern that used to be associated with content (print magazines, for example), but never with applications.

It’s the combination of publishers regularly wrapping media into applications and our acceptance of apps as impulse-buy items that makes me say that mobile apps are the new content.

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