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KRISH ASHOK
TECHNO BABEL

Krish Ashok is a blogger, humourist, techie, columnist, liitle bit violin player, lot of fool-player.

If applications are public buses, apps are share autos

oftware companies are now facing what I call the "Share auto" problem. If you own a smartphone, you have likely installed apps at some point of time. Not applications. Apps. The longer word describes those monstrous pieces of software that come with your desktop. Things like word processors that, instead of just giving you the digital equivalent of a pen and paper to write, give you a hundred different pens, twenty different kinds of papers and several barrels of ink in a thousand different colours. Most people don't use a significant percentage of features in most desktop software — so why do companies put them in the first place?

You can find the reason for that in how software has traditionally been delivered to a user. One had to go to a shop and buy this large box that either came with floppies or compact discs and then come home and install the thing; unlike a physical product that one could touch and feel, a piece of software is hard to sell when it's in a box. Unless one has a fertile imagination (and hopefully a few appointments with a psychotherapist), it's kind of hard to take two compact discs and decide that one of them somehow "feels" like a better piece of software. So software has always traditionally sold on the basis of the sheer number of features it could pack in each version. Until the company came up with a new and improved (and more feature rich version), the only thing that could ensure a customer's loyalty was to subliminally convince him that this application had enough features to satisfy both his current and future needs.

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So both factors essentially meant that users now expect apps to do a few things and do them really well. There’s never feature creep. There are simply more apps.

But it also then meant that software was made using the same metaphors that applied to a physical product. Discs had to be burnt, manuals had to be printed and boxes had to be shipped to stores, just like cornflakes is. As always with misplaced metaphors trying very hard to fit into an intransigent sentence that has moved ahead with the times, this whole thing came crashing down when Steve Jobs introduced the App Store. Suddenly, one didn't have to buy boxes to get software. One just had to click on the "Buy" button on one's smartphone and the app was just streamed into one's device and ready to use.

he App store now has half a million apps and more crucially, the apps themselves are extremely focused in terms of what they do. Obviously, you couldn't take our word processing approach to building software for a smartphone. One, its computing and storage resources are limited and two, installing stuff over the network makes it necessary to keep the app size small. So both factors essentially meant that users now expect apps to do a few things and do them really well. There's never feature creep. There are simply more apps.

This is now changing the face of the software industry. For starters, even large bulky pieces of software like operating systems are now delivered over the Internet. And large software makers are now struggling to change their "Fleece a small number of people by pricing a bloated piece of software insanely high" approach to a "Sell a large number of simple apps for 99c" approach.

Let me explain this with a metaphor. In most large Indian cities, a large percentage of the population uses public transport, and in most cases, these are buses, big polluting, intimidating beasts that are slow and (if you consider the cost of the subsidy) quite expensive. In the last few years, "share autos" have become increasingly popular. They are point to point and ferry a small number of passengers much faster to their destinations while still being quite cheap (and without being subsidized). Applications are like buses. Apps are share autos.

 
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