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Form Factor Inversion, Solution Spam

Paul Graham's piece on how to collectively refer to today's generation of mobile devices; iPhones, iPads, Android devices, etc., struck a chord.

"The only reason we even consider calling them "mobile devices" is that the iPhone preceded the iPad. If the iPad had come first, we wouldn't think of the iPhone as a phone; we'd think of it as a tablet small enough to hold up to your ear.

The iPhone isn't so much a phone as a replacement for a phone. That's an important distinction, because it's an early instance of what will become a common pattern. Many if not most of the special-purpose objects around us are going to be replaced by apps running on tablets."

I use my iPhone least of all as a phone these days, but the iPhone emerged out of a long term context where the mobile devices we carried around were phones first of all, with their classic key driven design which was a direct descendant of a forty year old notion of what a telephone looked like, and pocket computers second. It's an important point that the design of pre-iPhone devices was phone-like in this way, because it locked away any hope for real app usability as long as the form factor constraints of something that was better at handling telephone calls took precedence.

Sure, smart phones had been getting slowly more app centric prior to the iPhone, but they were still phones. With the iPhone, the design needle flipped its polarity and we're now used to smart phone devices that are more like tablet computers and a lot less like phones.

Then there's apps.

The iPhone, and the web for that matter, has eliminated all but a tiny fraction of distribution friction compared with PC based apps where the enforced locality and the inherent lack of device mobility meant that sales and distribution channels for PC based apps have long since been subject to old world dynamics of expensive physical distribution. Compared with shipping web apps or iOS apps today, this cost was enormous to the extent that it economically governed the size of any given application ecosystem, and the speed of its evolution.

What we have today is the flip-side where it effectively costs nothing up-front (other than your development time) to bring a basic app to the marketplace. This creates an environment that enables app developers to almost speculatively develop apps with the chance they might get traction with the market, and if they do, then invest more time to further develop and refine them. And if your speculative app doesn't take, no matter because all you've burned is your dev time. The need to build old world sales and distribution and marketing apparatus used to preclude such a thing with PC apps, but today apps are abundant.

However, then you get a situation where app development flourishes to such an extent that it takes on characteristics more akin with spam email than software development. This has a profound effect on buying behaviour; not least because it used to be simpler to choose your software because there was usually so little to choose from.

So, presumably markets will have to learn how to filter and evaluate apps differently as they are confronted with an ever lengthening tail of applications and solutions for any given purpose.  

As we have learned to instinctively tell the difference between a genuine email from PayPal for example, and a phishing email pretending to be from PayPal, I suspect over time we'll develop the necessary faculties to sort the wheat from the chaff in a world of abundant apps of all shapes, size and quality.

This isn't as easy as it might sound, for just as easy as it has become to develop apps that superficially pass muster, so too has it become easy to do the same for websites and marketing spiel. The harder values to judge are often locked beneath this shiny surface, which makes it pretty tough for a buyer to discern using these traditional, shop-front evaluation measures.

But it will change.

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