Thursday, July 17, 2008

iPhone 2.0 -- First Day Challenges and Initial App Store Thoughts

Last Friday, like thousands of other owners of the first-gen iPhone, I was caught in the 2.0 upgrade mess, which for several hours wound up "bricking" my phone. ("bricking" is a tech-lingo word for your phone being totally disabled, it turns into a brick). Luckily my iPhone is not my primary phone so I was able to patiently wait until the iTunes network became unclogged enough to allow the upgrade to proceed and reactivation of my phone to complete. But I sympathize with iPhone owners for whom it is their primary phone for business or personal use, what a fiasco, and how stressful to lose your phone for a day or more.

Lots of griping and yelling on the internet boards about this, and this time its well deserved. Although Apple can certainly spin it and crow about the outage being caused by unprecedented demand for the iPhone 3g and 2.0 updates, that would be really twisting things around. Apple and its fanclub seems to enjoy the high drama of 1st day product launches with lines of people sleeping outside stores for the chance to buy their products. But I'm sorry, purchasing an Apple product should not be like trying to score front row seats to a U2 concert. Most people just want to buy the product, have it work, and go on with their lives. Friday was simply mayhem, and its hard to fathom how Apple could not have been better prepared for high demand on their iTunes network based on the huge hype that preceded launch day.

After completing the upgrade, existing iPhone owners may indeed find themselves wondering what all the fuss was about. A casual review of the 2.0 home screen and built in apps doesn't reveal much has changed. Yes there is MobileMe as a sync option, but I don't know what percentage of iPhone users will feel the need to spend money on this service. Two other improvements are support for 3G and GPS, but if you have a 1st gen iPhone, these aren't going to be there anyway.

So that leaves the new App Store as being arguably the most significant new feature for iPhone users (for 1st gen owners, but also perhaps for 3G owners as well). Once I had 2.0 loaded on my iPhone and the requisite 7.7 iTunes upgrade, I spent a considerable amount of time over the weekend nosing around the App Store to see what was available and what the purchase/download/install process was like.

The App Store gave me a lot of timeouts when trying to purchase/download apps. These problems seem to be easing up now a few days later, but on the first couple of days, I frequently was unable to purchase or download an app due to the iTunes network being busy. iPhone enthusiasts will no doubt persist and be determined to get those apps, but the unfortunate downside is you have people out there who have no time or patience to figure out why they can't buy "Super Monkeyball", and they will give up and never return. As iPhone sales grow, its inevitable that they will fall into the hands of people who aren't enthusiasts and simply don't have the time to push past these initial problems. In my view, its really unacceptable to have these problems on such a long-anticipated launch day. Imagine you open your own store on main street and the store is jammed with eager buyers on opening day....but the cash register doesn't work and your employees don't show up. Not a good start.

Getting to a more positive note, I was pretty impressed with how easy it was to get apps onto your device, it melded pretty well with the existing iTunes purchase process. Apps download to the device just like music does, they automatically transfer during sync. Pretty streamlined, and transparent to the user. I saw no sign of any "installer", which has always been an ugly part of purchasing any apps, whether desktop or mobile.

In particular, the iTunes app purchase and installation process puts RIM's offering to shame. RIM has a basic online storefront for BlackBerry apps, but that's all. You purchase there, download to your PC, then you have to figure out how to use the BlackBerry Desktop to locate and install your app. There are many steps in this process, very error prone, especially for non-techie users. I've always felt that iTunes was the secret to iPod's success, and here once again, iTunes demystifies and simplifies the complicated process of getting 3rd party apps onto a mobile device. Kudos to Apple on this one, great job.

So what kind of applications are available on the store? After browsing through most of the categories on the store, they got facebook, they got myspace, they got namco games, they got sega to do a game. Handmark has a version of Express. But out of 500 apps, the vast majority of it appears to be fairly humdrum stuff that performs some small task or convenience or amusement for the user. These apps got a lot of attention because of the big launch, but these aren't apps that would normally excite your average user.

I noted many versions of the same app: lots of "todo lists", "shopping lists", "show me where restaurants are nearby on a map", and "calculate the tip". I had imagined that Apple was going to take a strong stance on the level of polish and quality required for apps on the store, but its not apparent to me that Apple put too strong a filter on what it would allow. Maybe they did do some quality checking, but they certainly didn't do the customer any favors by making them decide which of 30 tip calculators to download (an exaggeration, but I'm making a point).

This is a big problem with competing stores like Handango and Motricity, there's just too much stuff up there and it confuses the customer. I was hopeful (and I still am) that ultimately the App Store will not become another "software flea market", and instead will be a place where iPhone customers can go to learn about and purchase high-quality applications that deliver high value-add to the iPhone experience. With apologies to the many developers out there who want their moment in the sun, my view is that an anything-goes open store policy is not what the marketplace needs.

App prices are shockingly low. I saw almost nothing that’s more than $9.99. And *lots* of complaining about high prices from early reviewers of those 9.99 apps. Given that most of the "name" apps are native app clients for website services, I guess I'm not surprised. There's nothing here that is so clearly momentously high-value to charge much for. Hopefully that will change (I am biased being in the software business of course), as I believe customers will want to pay money for high-value apps as long as they get quality. That's how it works in the non-software world anyway. Regarding the app reviews, Apple needs to step in and make sure that the review section does not become a pile of garbage. Legitimate product reviews should come from customers who have tried the app. There's no place for people posting garbage reviews like "$9.99 for xyz app? Are they crazy?".

Regarding the free applications - there are lots, and I'm not against free, but I have to wonder whats the business model and how are those apps going to be sustained and supported. Most of them are not geared towards advertising revenue. If you aren't charging anything for an app, and have no upsell strategy to a paid-for version, what's the relationship between the developer and the customer? There is none. That has its place in the world, but thats not the model I want new iPhone customers to come away with. If a first time app downloader grabs a bunch of free apps that don't work well, don't have the necessary features, aren't supported, or never get updated, that will sour them on 3rd party apps overall, and that would be a shame.

Where are the "business apps"?. Kind of shocking given the big "We are going after Enterprise" noise Apple has made. No document editing/viewing/anything. I guess as far as Apple is concerned, documents do not exist? How are you a year into the launch of iPhone, yet you aren't recognizing that Palm, Windows Mobile, Symbian and (finally) BlackBerry all bundle document support on their devices? Hopefully this will be rectified soon.

Stepping back, I'm probably being too hard on Apple, after it all the whole thing is only 1 day old, and I'm the last to complain about a company that has clearly paid a good amount of attention to getting apps in their customers hands. But its as if they paid only just enough attention to make sure that the app store came into existence, but that’s where it ended.....I still smell a whiff of the same "flea market" atmosphere that is found on other mobile app stores. Apple threw open the doors, but didn't go out and really get enough serious 3rd party apps on the shelf in categories that count to serious application buyers, and at the same time they allowed hordes of developers to sneak in and set up shop with fairly inconsequential apps. So at least as of my first experience, I'm kind of disappointed. I hope and assume things will get better with time.