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Is the App Culture Killing Innovation?





The iPhone launched in 2007 and though it may be hard to remember, there was no availability to distribute or run any third party applications. However, soon after the iPhone was released, a few enterprising individuals manage to “jailbreak” their phones and create their own applications. A subculture was born of individuals jailbreaking their phones and launching third party applications, some of them useful, some just fun to show your friends.  When Apple launched the iPhone 2 a year later they launched the Apple App Store and opened their development platform to anyone who wanted to create apps using their Software Development Kit (SDK). In effect, the Apple App store was born out of innovation, vision and entrepreneurism.  It was not long after that when Google, Amazon and others followed suit and opened their own app stores where customers could download third party applications that would run on other mobile devices or web applications that would run on desktops.


In the beginning the app developer’s pool was made up of geeky parents with toddlers creating apps for their kids or computer engineers who were intrigued by the platform. Many of these early apps packed a lot of zing and sizzle in them. Since most of these early developers had fulltime jobs, they were in the app creation game as a lark or to show their children and friends what they could do for them – i.e. they were not in it for the money. The majority of the early apps were either free, or sold for .99. But when there are only a few thousand apps in the store, but millions of users, those who had a half-way decent app could make a really decent income out of a lot of .99 purchases. Unfortunately, this set the tone. App buyers began to expect cheap apps.


Roadblocks to Success

On July 11, 2008 there were roughly 500 apps available when the app store launched. Just one year later, there were over 55,000 apps. This January the number exceeded 800,000. But today’s developer faces a number of roadblocks on their way to winning the gold.


First off, no app store navigation is intuitive. It is a needle-in-the-haystack-hunt at best and even then, one often does not get the same search results as doing the same actions the day before. There is no internal organization that mirrors how educational content is found and used. The only organization a teacher can use is a search that would connect to any of the ten keywords that a developer is permitted to list. How much easier it would be if the developer was able to note at posting whether their app was preschool, elementary, intermediate or secondary and then checked the content area the app supported.  As it is now, it is impossible for a teacher to find a book app appropriate for a third-grade reader. The current process also leaves developers with the task of doing all the marketing to try and direct potential users towards their app.


All developers using the Apple app store must use Apple’s Software Development Kit (SDK) and all apps must go through Apple’s approval process.  This is OK for quality but bad for innovation. There is no way to incorporate, much less discuss alternative deployment methods or to suggest new ways to do things. All developers must execute everything about their app in the sanctioned Apple way. When developers try new ways, Apple rejects the app and more often than not, provides little information why the app is rejected and no phone number to discuss alternatives. Developers are left to go back to the “way it was done before.”


In addition, consumers have grown to expect an app price of free, or at the very most $2.99.  This pricing structure makes it very hard for a developer to take a risk and do something innovative and new with the technology as it gives them little room to get a return on their investment. As an example, the very creative book, Pedlar Lady, took advantage of the accelerometer built into the iPad greatly increasing its engagement factor. It was released at $7.99 – still way below what the book would be in a print form. Today, it has been reduced to $3.99 to better meet app buyer’s expectations.


What is the Future?

Recent discussions with some app publishers confirm they have slowed down the number of apps they are producing and are rethinking their app strategy.  Where many of the app developers started off producing multiple apps, each employing and testing different capabilities, they have since learned that following a plan of picking one way to a execute an app and just varying the content is the only way they can now get a return on their investment. The low or no cost culture does not support the costs of creating cutting edge technologies within the app and certainly has no room for adding multiple technologies. They add that there are just too many apps and with its poor navigation users just cannot find their app to enable a purchase.


I predict we will see increasing stagnancy in app innovation within the education app pool. If app purchasers become willing to pay more than $2.99 to get apps with cutting edge elements and high-end content, if app store personnel open more pathways that allow app developers stronger communication lines so they can proffer their own ideas for growth and innovation and if app stores take a look at their organizational structure and do a better job of making it easier to navigate; then perhaps some of the education app developers will start taking risks again. One of the beauties of technology is that it has the ability to invite full incorporation of innovation. Let’s not let human intervention accidently close that door .

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