How the App Economy Has Transformed Product Strategy

By ajcolores

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Mobile apps can stake a pretty solid claim to being the single most important shift in consumer product behaviour in the last 5 years.  Sure the devices themselves are pivotally important, but were it not for the apps consumers install on them, they would just be better versions of the feature phones and early smartphones from half a decade earlier.  Apps have transformed consumers’ expectations of what digital experiences should be, and not just on connected devices.  But Apps have also transformed product strategy, in two key ways:

  • Apps have replaced product strategy with feature strategy
  • Apps have created a renaissance in the consumer software market

Apps have replaced product strategy with feature strategy

Though there are a good number of apps which can be genuinely held up as fully fledged products (Google Maps, Angry Birds, WhatsApp etc.) many are in fact product features rather than products.  Shazam for example is a fantastic feature, so fantastic that it should be as ubiquitous in music products as a volume button, but it is nonetheless a feature not a product.  Don’t mistake this for a derogatory critique: indeed feature strategy is virtually the core DNA of the app model.  After all apps rely upon the core product of the smartphone or tablet itself to do much of the hard work.

Apps co-exist with the core functionality of the device in order to layer extra features on top.  Instagram uses a phone’s camera and web functionality, Layar uses the camera and GPS and so forth.  In short, apps add features and functionality to hardware products.  That does not make them inherently any less valuable for doing so, but it does make them dramatically different from pre-App products. Even the majority of utility apps, such as those that track rail and flight schedules, or the weather are at heart browser bookmarks on steroids.  Games are perhaps the only app category which in the main can be considered as self-contained products.

This shift from product strategy to feature strategy has slashed the time it takes for products to get to market and has dramatically reduced development overhead, but it is a model riven with risk.  Consumers and the device ecosystem companies are winners, but many app developers are exposed.  On the one hand they have the insecurity associated with platform dependency, on the other they know that if their features are that good that they will likely be integrated into the device’s core OS or into the featureset of another app with broader functionality.  Sometimes those scenarios will be achieved via favourable commercial avenues (such as an acquisition or licensing) but sometimes it will just be flat out plagiarism.

The lesson for app developers is clear: if your app is a feature and it is good, then you need to plan for how to turn it into a product, else plan for what to do when your app has become someone else’s feature.

Apps have created a renaissance in the consumer software market

It is sometimes easy to lose sight of just what apps are: software.  In the PC age software was for most people one of three things:

  • Microsoft Windows and Office
  • An anti-virus tool
  • A bunch of free-trial bloatware shortcuts preinstalled on their desk top pre point of sale

Mainstream PC behaviour was defined by Microsoft functionality and browser based activity.  Sure, software from the likes of Real Networks and Adobe supported much of those browser based experiences, but they were to the consumer effectively extensions of the core OS rather than software products themselves.  A premium consumer software market did exist but never broke through to mainstream.  Consumers didn’t know where to look for software, whether it would install properly, whether it would work on their PC, and then on top of all this they were faced with having to provide credit card details to small companies they knew nothing about.

Mobile apps changed all of that.  App stores simultaneously fixed the discovery, billing, installation and compatibility issues in one fair swoop.  Apps have enabled the consumer software market to finally reach its true opportunity.  Just in the same way that the iPod allowed digital music to fulfil its potential.

Apps continue to transform consumer behaviour and expectations

So where will feature strategy and the reinvigorated consumer software business take us?  What is clear is that consumers are getting exposed to a wider array of digital experiences and are evolving more sophisticated digital behaviours due to apps.  Apps are also enabling consumers to do things more effectively and efficiently, and are empowering them with more information to make better decisions, whether that be getting the best flight price or choosing the best local plumber.  They are also making consumers expect a lot more from a device’s ecosystem than just the devices.  How often do you see a phone company advertise its handsets with the screen turned off? It is the apps that count.  For now, however good Nokia might be able to make its smartphones it knows that its app catalogue and ecosystem struggles to hold a candle to Apple’s App store and ecosystem (the same of course applies to all other handset manufacturers).

Apps have become velvet handcuffs for connected device owners

But what happens if/when consumers start to shift at scale between ecosystems?  For example, say Apple finds swathes of its iPhone and iPad customers switching to competitors in the future, what sort of backlash will occur when consumers find they have to expensively reassemble their app collections to reconstruct the features they grew used to on their Apple devices?  Perhaps a smart handset manufacturer would consider investing in an app amnesty, giving new customers the equivalents of their iOS apps for free on their new handsets.

For now though, Apple’s market leading app catalogue behaves like velvet handcuffs on its customers and gives it a product strategy grace period, in which it could get away with having a sub-par product generation, with customers staying loyal because of not wanting to lose their App collections.  But not even the strength of Apple’s app catalogue would not enable them to keep hold of disaffected customers much longer than that.  After all, apps are features, not the product itself.


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