There’s an app for that: How do you create, manage and monetize tablet, mobile and web-based apps?

April 8, 2011

A review of the panel session at the Guardian’s Changing Media Summit

Mike Burgess of Seven said after initially purchasing his iPad, he felt rather underwhelmed. But the moment the UK app store opened and content could be downloaded his iPad suddenly became very relevant in his life. Burgess believes that the iPad and similar tablet devices have “untethered” the web from the desk-centric environment. Burgess backed this up with statistics from Seven’s latest research that stated that people with tablet devices are using their desktop and laptop computers less, consuming 10% less television and peak usage of tablet devices is between 7 and 9pm.

The panel’s focus began around the subject of the impact that apps and tablet devices are having on the production workflow for publishers. Burgess’ opinion on the matter was that the process of taking a print magazine and transitioning it into a website and app format was “insanely complex”. This is because the production tools that are currently available are nowhere near as good as they need to be. Adobe Air is one program that has helped develop new kinds of workflow, but to great disappointment, Air is not supported by Apple.

There’s also the problem of the fact that print magazines compared to digital magazines are completely different products. By moving a print magazine online, you are transforming the magazine experience from lean-back to lean-forward, as they provide an immersive, interactive content experience for readers as well as innovative possibilities for advertisers.

The debate them moved on to the challenges people face in taking apps cross-platform and choosing the right app strategy. Chris Thorpe, co-founder and technolgist at Artfinder talked about how Artfinder are developing their own platform. Creating a new platform seemed the best way to scale across the range of devices that are constantly emerging in the market as well as aiding Artfinder partners, such as small museums and individual artists to make apps and share the revenue generated through app sales and in-app sales of physical prints. This platform will make it possible for small museums and cultural institutions to create apps and continue to update their content, despite the current funding cuts in the arts. The platform will also allow apps to be designed for smaller tablet screens, which will be more suitable for use in museums. Chris argued that understanding how people are using different devices for your product is invaluable. For example the larger 9/10in screens proved a problem for holding for a long duration whilst moving around the museum, especially for the older generation and those with arthritis. Therefore, Chris suggested that you really need to think cross-platform from the very start to ensure you have the right app for the right person to create the right engagement.

The discussion then moved onto whether organisations should focus on developing native apps, or whether web apps were in fact the way forward. Mike Saunders from Kew Gardens, which is part-government funded – and therefore needs to support science and provide information freely to the public; but is also commercial and therefore wants to pursue opportunities such as encouraging repeat custom and selling plants people had discovered during their visit by scanning a QR code.

Saunders said Kew had opted for an iPhone app which is due to launch this summer, which aims to be quite different from anything that has been done for a visitor attraction before.  Kew has opted for an iPhone app as they wanted to support existing visitor behaviours like serendipitous discovery. Rather than giving people routes or itinerairies around the gardens, it’s aiming to help people lose themselves delightfully in the gardens using GPS and collect things along the way, using a mixture of heat maps, QR codes and augmented reality to do it. Kew are also developing a game to support their summer festival called ‘Tweet and Grow’, which similar to the old-school tamagotchi mixed in with the latest trends of Farmville and Twitter, users will be able to tweet to make their plant grow; earning them discounts at Kew.

From this the panel discussed the issues around ‘findability’ and how apps experience a fall in downloads if they fall out of the App Store’s Top 25. Kew and Artfinder were very concerned, as it is very difficult to have a presence in the app store. Instead they believed that word-of-mouth was key to promoting apps. Mike Burgess also said word-of-mouth was a strong driver of app promotion through the almost ‘physical nature’ of apps. Apps can literally be pulled out of your pocket and be shown to one another in a way that website never could.

Juan Lopez-Valcarcel, director of digital product and consumer technology at Pearson who have over 200 apps in the market currently, from The Financial Times app to Spot the Dog stated that they face less of a problem with findability. Juan instead argued that the app stores created a brand new space for the attention economy as the web became overcrowded, but he did agree that big brands like Pearson and Tesco meant people came looking for you rather than the brand having to push in-app store promotion.

At the end of the discussion, the panel was fired with questions from the audience. One of the main concerns that were highlighted was that with the increase of app consumption and users, would the 3G network begin to crunch? And how will this issue affect consumers in the UK? The panellists agreed that there needs to be a push to get more people on wifi to take the load of the 3G networks, whether at home, in the office, on trains and on the street.

The other concern regarding network was with the advent of 4G “Anytime Anywhere” and the possibility that apps may become a thing of the past. 4G, which is expected to provide wireless download speeds of about 100Mps in wide area networks (WAN), about 260 times greater than the 3G wireless networks would remove the current restriction of the user’s ability to take advantage of rich multimedia content. Therefore the panellists argued that 4G won’t wipe apps out but instead will benefit them.  Due to the “infiniteability” of apps and the increased capacity for data connections, apps have the potential to create a myriad of possibilities to the end user at high speed.

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