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Are apps the only way to do mobile, and in fact, any computing? We appear to be living in the golden age of apps. There is an app for whatever you wish to do, be that read, or play. Led by Apple, the iPhone and iPad have the most, with hundreds and thousands of all types and styles.
Android is coming on strong but other ecosystems, from Nokia to Windows Phone 7, still lag far behind. Recent events, and in no small part, my current overexposure to mobile phones and tablets, got me thinking that this obsession with apps may actually be a bad, and may be preventing the emergence of a another way.
Look up from your phone or tablet when next in a coffee shop, and see what’s going on out there. Almost everybody is heads down, looking into their laps pecking away at their various devices, all whilst nominally “meeting”. This rather asocial and very interesting phenomenon has been growing right along with the growth of the smartphone and tablet market. To be fair, the laptop coffee shop brigade are simply looking straight into the screens of the devices which are placed strategically in front of them, and in the way of their table partners.
This need to be constantly in touch, and be connected, will grow as the devices become more pervasive, as well as cost effective, and more and more of our key service go on line. What we desperately need is an age of enlightenment, a bright light that frees us from the devices themselves but not from the benefits these devices bring.
Apps are all well and good, and perhaps we have become so fixated on the apps themselves that we are starting to see the internet in terms of apps. We think Facebook apps, Twitter Apps, and lots of others such as Instagram, for you iPhonographers. The functionality of current devices seems to have become inextricably linked to the apps, iOS and Apple are defined by their hundreds and thousands of apps, and the general consensus is that the Blackberry Playbook is a great tablet, but what a pity there are no apps. Apps have quietly come to define our usage of any device or platform.
The app paradigm was perfected by Apple with the release of the app store on the iPhone. So closely linked are the two that an iPhone without the app store is simply an expensive touchscreen with limited usefulness. Android, Microsoft, Samsung, and even Nokia have followed this lead, and now we have apps on our laptops and now even our TVs. For the app addicted, the latest and greatest game or utility and a myriad of other apps have to be tried, downloaded, sorted and used.
The first glimpse of the post app world was the insistence from Blackberry that its apps are Super Apps. What it was trying to get across to us app obsessed, is that the apps are not just single function programmes, but that they integrate and interact with the other apps and services on the device. This integration actually goes far deeper than that.
Key apps on Blackberry, such as their Blackberry Messenger App, are deeply and seamlessly integrated into the operating system itself, and in the latest incarnation you can send pictures via BBM direct from the photo app and in fact use BBM features from many places in the phone.
Windows phone 7 also touted its ability to deeply integrate Facebook into the overall experience, without actually going into the App itself. The trend continues with the next iteration of Apples iOS 5 where the integration of Twitter is part of the core operating system. This integration allows faster and more immersive interaction with your friends and contacts throughout the device.
Nokia has also been thinking of a new way, it appears. Notwithstanding its next flagship devices using the Windows 7 operating system, Nokia has just launched its latest, the N9 which is using a Meego based operating system.
The innovation, Nokia are proud to announce, is in the physical design and the unique interface, as well as the deep integration of functionality without the extensive use of apps. In fact the N9 has no app store as such. At first glance the N9 looks like any other smartphone. It has one really obvious difference; there are no actual function keys on the phone apart from Volume up and down and a power button. The unique interface is all touch and swipe, so to wake up tap the screen twice, and to get to the home screen, or navigate, you simply swipe the screen. You can swipe up, down, and left to right, as well as right to left, the whole feeling is smooth and very organic.
The Swipe paradigm is pervasive throughout. The actual home screen has a whole page of icons that appear to open apps, and apps they actually are. The clever part is that the apps themselves are cleverly integrated into the whole experience, combined with really fluid navigation.
It did help that all the apps were written on the same platform, and by the N9 development team. The benefits are a consistency and fluidity missing from the diverse apps available on all the other app stores. There is no back key, forward key, or home key, and only three home screens. All the key functionality that smartphone users have come to enjoy like Facebook, Twitter, and many more are so integrated into the experience, you can tweet or Skype from the address book.
This integration and interface was actually amazingly easy to use, and very intuitive. Nokia had to think laterally as the N9 is the first and the last phone to use the quaintly named operating system called Meego 1.2 Harmatten. Meego is a joint venture between Intel and Nokia, and was to be Nokia’s next big thing in mobiles, until the Microsoft deal was announced.
The need to rethink the operation and interaction with the phone was almost required. Meego has virtually no apps, nothing to compete with Apple or Android, and yet the N9 has all the apps I would currently use, with the exception of WhatsApp. As a consolation it has Skype, Google Chat, Microsoft Messenger and Facebook Chat all deeply integrated into the experience. In the short time I tried the N9 I was amazed how quickly I forgot there was no app store in sight, and yet I felt as connected, and perhaps more so, due to the sheer integration of functionality and interface, coupled with remarkably elegant execution of the hardware.
What the N9 showed, apart from a very cool new phone, was thinking that goes far beyond apps, and in fact is the first glimpse of what is possible in the post app world. Perhaps this is the light I was thinking of, still a little dim, but definitely glowing. With the N9 you get all the communication, all the navigation, games, and other key usable features that you need, without one download and install. The subtle differentiator here is that the integration of all this functionality with the interface and the hardware makes for a fluid and seamless interaction with technology. It will definitely help keep your head up during your coffee meetings. Overall the N9 makes all the other phones look and feel just a touch old fashioned.
I am sure that this glimpse of the future of interface design, and app integration, will light the way on how use technology in the future. As dominant as the current batch of Interfaces are, and as unassailable the app lead that Apple currently has, perhaps we will be moving into the post app world sometime soon.