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There was a point in the week when I couldn’t sleep, so I started chatting with Rita about her one of her latest posts over at Mobile RnR. We talked about how good it feels that there are aspects of mobility that do indeed work great when using multiple devices. And certainly, that idea of continuous client functionality with IM, browsing, etc. would add to that. However, there was something looking into our conversation that was a bit scarier. Something that many of us don’t even pay attention to until its too late. Mobile apps are a losing investment.

I’ll start with her example. She mentioned that she’d spent about $150USD on applications for her iPod Touch. However, that’s a device that doesn’t get any use much anymore for her because her Android smartphone has been able to work fine, including many of those apps and multimedia affects. Essentially, she’s got a device with $150 of software that’s essentially lost (to her) forever. And on that platform, as with many other modern ones, if she were to sell the device, the licenses for those applications don’t also get sold to the new user. They’d have to repurchase those apps (and sometimes content).

Then there’s me. I purchased the iPad knowing full well that there were very few apps that I would want to be locked into. I have made a very conscious decision to only purchase applications that are of definitive value to my needs, but also don’t limit the product of that app to the platform if at all possible. This has led to me having exactly one screen of apps (everything is in folders). The apps that I use most (Evernote, Twitter, Dropbox, YouVersion, Logos, Kindle, etc.) are essentially fronts for services, which appear on my other mobile device. Other apps (GoodReader, Flipboard, Adobe Ideas, GoToMyPC, etc.) might be limited to the platform, but what they create I can export to places and apps where I have some greater control over what’s next. In effect, I’m making an effort to invest in not being locked into a losing investment. Problem is, as the example of Rita’s iPod Touch shows, you can’t always count on that being the case.

Now, there is something of a solution by going to web apps. And certainly, I’ve got a few of them on my iPad. The best ones are also usable on my N97. Those that aren’t usually serve the purpose of being best used on the iPad (their are reference materials). I really wish that the iPad and other mobile devices were faster to support those aspects of web apps that would make this more the case for most people, but we’ve got a ways to getting there (security, performance, and platform constraints).

So that leaves many of the mobile app weilding public approaching an Armageddon that they either are blind to or ignorant to. And frankly speaking, i don’t think that it will be pretty. I can see a few things that could happen though to soften the blow:

  • Mobile devs could be more proactive about adding HTML5 frameworks into native apps, making it easier for people to make platform changes but keep their investments;
  • More mobile platforms announce and push hard the move to HTML5-like solutions for developer kits
  • People could get really smart and ditch every device sitting on a platform where their apps and content are stuck for open(er) platforms

Ok, so the last one won’t really happen. But, its really the wish of many.

There’s one other bug-a-boo to note here. There are some of those service-level platforms (Amazon Kindle for example) where if you opt out of the service, that you also lose the access and right to the content you’ve purchased. Seriously. Go read the Terms of Service for the Kindle service. I’ll wait…

Did you see it? You have the right to backup your purchased content, but it only authorized to play in applications certified by Amazon. You can opt out of the service, but you also lose the rights to the content you purchased. And nope, Kindle content can’t be read in any other app, it is totally locked there. You are essentially leasing the access to content. You never own anything. So yep, purchasing there is also an issue of a total or sunk investment.

That is, unless laws, and the rules of the game change. Amazon and other service providers don’t have much of a reason to change things since people are willingly shifting funds and attention to them. And for application developers, they are too busy raking in the profits (sorta) to pay attention to the fact that by design they are enabling manufacturers to screw consumers.

With all of that said, how do you feel about downloading that mobile app? That realization has sure nuff given me pause – much like that piece about sugar. Who knew that mobile apps were just as toxic.

2 thoughts on “Mobile Apps Are a Toxic Investment

  1. Excellent post. A bit of a chicken little mindset but that’s why I like what you write.

    But keep in mind that it’s not the mobile app that’s the issue-it’s orphaned information that’s the issue. Yes, it’s silly to invest goo-gobs of money into software on a platform that’ll be irrelevant in a year…this is why a software developer’s approach should be “APIi first”. The API is what allows your info to be accessed by various methods and interfaces-some that exist now, and some not invented yet. The way of storing data will not change…but the way we access it will.

  2. Thats the developer’s mindset, but the end game for consumers is pretty much the same. Consumers have got to be smarter about where they invest in respect to mobile apps, developers mindful of the ethics of lock-in.

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