Speakers’ Corner: Apps will guide buying decisions

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Manufacturers’ battle for hearts and minds is now focused decisively on the mobile application market, says Ian Ralph, director of GfK Business and Technology, and the fight to differentiate product has become much more difficult

Mobile phones have become the dominant force in our lives; being with us throughout the day and staying close to us at night. But manufacturers should beware, it’s not the device itself that consumers love anymore but what it enables us to do.

We’ve known for some time now that the mobile phone has become an essential tool for many of us, but a recent study conducted by GfK NOP has shown that smartphones are taking this one step further and becoming a vital life-line for their users.

When asked how they would live if their smartphone died (quite literally), users told us they would “be alone in the wilderness… until tomorrow when [their] new phone arrives in the post and [they’re] connected back up,” and that “[they] will download all the same apps [they] used to use in loving memory of [their phone]”.

So it clear that it is not the smartphone itself that provides this vital life support, but what it can do for us.

And these vital functions are increasingly performed by downloadable third party applications, or in common parlance, “apps”.

With a fifth of smartphone users downloading more apps than six months ago, mobile applications are rapidly replacing the browser as the main gateway to the web for the mobile consumer.

Whether it’s messaging, music, photo sharing, navigation or games; if you want to do it there is an app ready and waiting to make that experience quicker, simpler and easier.

But interestingly many apps appear to be transitory in their nature.

Our study found that on average smartphone users download 15 applications to their phones, keeping 12 of them and using about five daily – rising to 32, 24 and nine for iPhone users.

With the exception of certain ‘killer-apps’ like Facebook and Twitter, it appears that many apps have a relatively short shelf life.  Many are somewhat trivial or novel rather than practically useful and tend to be disposed of as quickly as they are downloaded.

So the growing number of mobile consumers using apps is turning the device itself into a disposable object, a vessel for applications. But in this new world order, can the device manufacturers regain the hearts and minds of British consumers or are they fighting a losing battle?

No longer just battling with the network operator brands for pole position in the consumers’ purchase consideration, manufacturers are now faced with the shopper entering the store asking for the latest Android phone or a device that can let them access their Picassa album on the go.

Thus the power starts to shift to the operating system brand, the one that delivers these apps straight into our hands.

Apple has its own little ecosystem neatly tied up with the iPhone and iOS.  If you have your nine must-have iPhone apps you may be reluctant to switch brand as these will be lost forever.

Conversely, Android and Windows Mobile are available on multiple handset brands and apps could be relatively easily switched or replaced.

But for the majority of mobile phone users yet to take their first step into the smartphone world, is an open eco-system more appealing for this very reason?

So where is all this going to end up? And who is ultimately going to win?

Well if we carry on along the current trajectory, I see the smartphone increasingly become a conduit for delivering these app-based experiences, much like the PC market, where the consumers’ focus is more on the core processing power and less on functions, features and design.

What the phone does will be dictated by the apps the user downloads and how it will deliver that experience will be down to the operating system.

So device manufacturers will get closer and cosier with Google and Microsoft, but at the same time seek to differentiate themselves by tweaking the front-end to make the experience unique to them (eMoto Blur, HTC Sense, Sony Ericsson Timescape).

The latest form factor to cause a stir is the tablet, defined in the dictionary as a flat slab or surface. Despite Apple’s best efforts, how does one differentiate between one tablet device and another – other than what you can do with it, and apart from the use of pretty colours and clever branding or by building up a fetish cult of desirability?

Perhaps the smartphone is fast becoming the mini-tablet, or the “pill” if we stretch the analogy a little – a small, bland object that delivers a much needed benefit, albeit with the same result as a million others like it sitting on the shelf.

Mind you, millions of people pay twice the price for Nurofen over stores’ own brand painkillers because of its snazzy name and shiny silver packet – so maybe the battle is not over quite yet.

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