Hardware Is Meaningless. It’s About the Apps

Sure, people love their iPhones, iPads, and Androids, but it’s the apps that give them their value and utility. Pro or con?

Pro: Where the Real Excitement Is

It’s all about the apps. If you own a smartphone, you’ve got the world at your fingertips. Mobile devices such as the iPhone (AAPL) have changed the way we manage our lives. Yet the single most important factor in the growth of smartphones is the proliferation of apps they enable.

Sure, the iPhone’s and Android’s (GOOG) high-quality touch screens, built-in GPS, and accelerometers are engaging, but hardware continues, with better components, to evolve constantly over time. This is not enough to explain the boom. Mobile devices have come and gone, and even now devices more advanced than the iPhone attract less attention because they fail to put apps front and center.

Software—or more specifically, an enabled eco-system of software developers who write great applications—is the key. These developers push the envelope of what is possible and in turn drive the next generation of devices needed to support successful apps. Hardware evolution is a result of the software requirements, not the other way around.

Smartphone apps now make it possible for people to go beyond the Web to get things done. Businesses are taking note of this and making apps a priority, as smartphone-toting customers may not sit down at their computers for days. Making them happy requires that businesses reach them using apps available on any device.

Apps, not hardware, deliver the products, services, and marketing messages that customers want and that businesses need to ensure their success in an increasingly mobile world.

Con: Total User Experience

A mobile app can be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it won’t get used unless it’s part of an integrated user experience hosted by the device. We recently conducted a broad usability study of 34 iPad applications. Many of them looked great and worked just fine on an individual basis. But people don’t use apps on a standalone basis. They use apps as part of a totality, composed of the device, the wireless connectivity, and all the other apps they’ve downloaded.

iPad apps have wacky user interfaces that go any which way without much consistency. The rules change every time users shift to another app—something they do often. In our user testing, many iPad apps scored poorly because the device lacks an overall coherent user interface.

In a different study, we found that most iPhone users have several screenfuls of apps they either never use or have used only once or twice. The download stats for these apps may be impressive, but they fail to build a strong total user experience for the phone.

The first two generations of iPhone competitors were blatant failures because of the poor usability created by their uncoordinated total user experience. It’s not enough to have a nice touch screen or an app store. The integration of hardware, user interface, and apps functionality has to come together to form a supportive whole.

Anything mobile will inherently be small and weak compared with the power of a "full" computer. The way to overcome these deficiencies is with a tight design, where everything works just right. To achieve this goal requires a great device with strong user-interface standards. Individual apps can succeed only by fitting with the platform.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

jack4555

Con. You still live in a house, cook, clean, have fun and drive a car to where you want. Basic hardware is a normal need.

Tony

A consistent UI across ipad apps is a large concern I have found to be common amount recent ipad studies. But would a shift to web-based instead of device-based apps resolve this issue. When apple first opened up the app store, it was strictly web based.

reader

I would rather support Jakob and reiterate that hardware plays a vital role. In fact, the roles played by hardware and apps are compiementary to each other. You cannot have a great device that lacks either in adequate hardware to support the apps or impressive hardware with no good apps.

Both are necessary.

commanderz

Con. The equipment has to be appealing and users have to want it. The iPhone, as an example, became popular because of how it looks and responds (touchscreen). The apps are important, but it would still be popular without a million apps. Don't lose track of hardware functionality and design. It is key.

Stone

The apps are really where it is at, but they are not paid accordingly, but Jobs gets how much for salary?

martin

Got to agree with jack4555. Hardware will always come first. Apps will help the application, but if the hardware is not up to design, the apps will fail.

Rob

What is interesting about this debate is that both are right, but missing the point. Hardware + app = appliance. Appliances don't have to be consistent and, surprise, you don't need more than a couple of apps to have usable appliances. Sure you can argue that the form factor and integrated software design will produce a superior user experience but you have to pay the price of having them with you. The Swiss Army Knife is a better model for my smartphone until it fits on my wrist, at which point I may start to carry a camera (or other appliance) in my pocket again. It's not about all the Apps, it's about the app (or two) that works for you.

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