Mobile Tech Manor #98: Apps, Not Programs

Another week is in the bag, and it’s time to look back and see what I learned from the happenings in Mobile Tech Manor. It was a week largely focused on apps, and I gave a lot of thought to my shift from “programs” to “apps”. It’s a big change on my approach to things, far bigger than I realized.

Apps, Not Programs

Not too long ago I was buying programs — big chunks of software that I either downloaded from the web, or got out of a box. These programs cost a lot — sometimes hundreds of dollars — because they were designed to do an awful lot. I only used a small fraction of the functionality of these programs, but the extra features were there just in case I needed them.

Because these programs could do so many things, they often didn’t do the little functions I needed well enough. You can’t expect developers to get every little thing perfect when they have millions of lines of code working together do so many things. The programs could handle most things they were designed to do, but often not optimally.

Developers of these programs had their hands full keeping them going; addressing the long list of little niggling things that customers didn’t like was a full-time job. The only way this could be done was to keep plugging away at one little bug at a time, and then releasing a massive update with lots of improvements rolled into the mix. This worked for a long time, and users tolerated it, as that was just the way things worked.

Then apps came along and things changed. I started using apps on PDAs way back in the day, but they were not as prevalent back then. Early apps had a tighter focus than big programs, which was an advantage, as developers often made them perform the one function very well. The price of these apps was a fraction of that of programs. It was possible to pick up a good app for twenty or thirty bucks, a bargain compared to the pricing of the big box programs.

App developers did a better job at support for these small apps, due to the small amount of code involved. It was common for brand new (and significant) features to get added with a new version of the app, extending the value to the user. The value proposition was easy for the consumer to see. The apps were much cheaper than big programs, but they still cost enough that it was prudent to research the various apps designed to do one function to make sure you got the right one.

Then came the smartphone and the entire app process changed again. As the number of apps on the market increased, prices dropped dramatically. A good app can often be picked up now for a couple of bucks, and that has impacted the way I approach my need for software tools. I still research online to get an idea which app may serve a particular need, but I’m not averse to grabbling several different apps designed to do the same thing to settle on the one that works best.

This means my software tool kit is better now than it has ever been, and at a fraction of the cost. I pick up apps regularly when a need arises, and with little effort I end up with a collection of apps on my smartphones that do a superb job handling the functions for which they are designed.

Because these apps are so cheap, developers are able to sell them in volume. That allows them to continue to support them, and in a more timely fashion than those old programs. Apps that cost very little are frequently updated, and developers are often adding totally new features to them that adds great value for the user. The worth of the app keeps increasing, and the tool kit keeps getting better.

Apps had been limited to the smartphone space until recently. The iPad let apps escape the confines of the little smartphone and jump over to a “real” computing device. The $2 app that was good on the smartphone, is often fantastically useful on the bigger iPad screen. Owners are buying apps at an amazing pace as a result of this new-found value.

The move of the app to a bigger device is profound. Just like on the smartphone, it is not uncommon for me to buy several apps on the iPad that do the same thing in my quest for the perfect one to meet my needs. I’m not dropping much money to do what amounts to hands-on research of the apps. The end result is I get the best tool for the job.

I’ve touched on the value of frequent app updates, and it has been nothing short of amazing how many updates many apps are getting. Several times a day on my smartphones and the iPad I hit the app stores to check for new app versions. Almost every day I find at least one, and often two or three new versions of the apps I have installed. Some of them are minor updates to address bugs, but many of them add totally new features that often have a major impact on how I use the app. It’s like getting a totally new app in these cases, and often the original app purchase price was very little.

As I thought about the massive growth of apps for phones (and now the iPad), I realized it has changed my approach to my daily work. I no longer look for larger programs to provide the tools I need, I always look for apps first. It is common for me to define a specific need for a software tool, and then buy several cheap apps to find out how they work. At the end of this short process, I usually end up with a great solution to a specific problem.

This has become such an ingrained part of my approach that I can’t remember the last time I bought a big program to do anything. There is simply no need to spend big bucks for a program that will require me to put a lot of time into learning how to use it effectively. The tiny focused app is cheap, can be installed in minutes and is easy to master. I have totally switched from programs to apps.

e-Books of the Week

I discovered a new action series this week that kept me entertained for hours. I read the first two books in the Jonathan “Digger” Grave series by John Gilstrap. Digger is the operator of a private investigator firm that specializes in operations others won’t touch, like rescuing kidnap victims. He has a good team of characters to help him, and Gilstrap tells a good story. The first book — No Mercy — whet my appetite to jump right into Hostage Zero. I enjoyed reading both books, switching between the iPad and the EVO 4G as appropriate.

Wrap up

That’s my week, spent doing a lot of heavy thinking about the way I work. My findings are appropriate for me, but your take on things might well be different. That’s why I share my take on things, and I love to hear yours in the comments.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d): To Win In the Mobile Market, Focus On Consumers