In the world of smartphones we see many fads, fashions and phases, often propelled by software, firmware or hardware of the time, be it personal assistants, instant messengers games, video calling or photo-sharing or what-not. Some of them have gone on to become tools and mediums for communication, work or enjoyment that we have come to rely on, others have faded into the ghosts of memories past.
What makes these fads so popular, and why don’t they all stick around? What factors contribute to the success or failure of an app, and what causes a popular application or tool to die a sweet death?
In an attempt to answer this question, I will focus on the case of instant messaging and communications on mobile platforms, although some examples of games and other kinds of applications may apply to some aspects of this article too.
A brief history of mobile messaging
For as long as I can remember owning a mobile phone (Oh Nokia 5110, how I miss you) the SMS message was the norm for communication with anyone you knew who owned a mobile phone. The moment you saw someone you knew, or even just kind of knew, using a mobile phone, you’d get their number and every evening you would send messages back and forth between all of your contacts until you ran out of credit, at least that’s how it was for me back when I was a spotty faced teen in school. Almost all mobile phones small enough to fit in your pocket had the SMS facility, meaning that you could literally “text” (yes, this is now legitimately a verb, as is “party”) anyone in your contacts list with a mobile number, and the popularity of texting grew as fast as mobile phones could sell.
Fast forward to the days of Myspace, seems like a century ago, huh? Well, it was only about half a decade ago that you were sitting there at your Windows XP powered computer, fighting all the adware, bluescreens of death and viruses to check who had commented on your Myspace profile, listening to your favourite band’s latest uploaded b-side in the profile music player after waiting for it to load for fifteen minutes so that it wouldn’t skip, and playing with your new mobile phone that could surf the net. Maybe you were one of the few youngsters who got a Blackberry after having played with your friend’s dad’s Business Blackberry and deciding you’d liked it, otherwise you most likely had a colour screen Nokia with a 1.3MP camera, polyphonic ringtones and enough memory for twelve 128kbs MP3s, selected wisely by you. You had discovered that you could run your Myspace and MSN Messenger (SLOOOOOOWLY!) through your mobile phone’s WAP browser. WOW! You would spend hours when not at a PC messaging people who were sat at their PC from your mobile phone, they would be getting bored and complaining that you were writing so slowly while you had to wait at least a minute for your WAP browser to update your MSN Messenger screen so that you could read anything your friends had written to you, and your replies seldom went through.
Moving on to the advent of touchscreen phones, BBM had just taken off, everyone who didn’t have a Blackberry would have an application to get online via MSN Messenger or Skype, and after Facebook Chat was invented, people would flock to that instead of MSN, these apps were mobile hits, and are still very popular today. We still use Ebuddy and IMO clients frequently to check our MSN, Facebook Chat, Skype and other services, however, you may have noticed already that a service was mentioned in this paragraph that is virtually unused these days…
What has changed?
These days the most popular mediums for mobile messaging are Whatsapp, Viber, Skype, official Twitter and Facebook applications and iMessage. Other services commonly used include Tango for messaging and video calling, KIK messenger, Line messenger, Google Talk and several multiple IM clients. We have the ability to send “free” messages, make free calls or connect a video camera “free” to anyone around the world, for as long as we are paying for an internet connection (or connected to someone elses…).
We rarely need to wait for a message to send, and when we do, it’s because the recipient is in a tunnel or has no battery in their phone, we have true mobile instant messaging and instant communication.
What does this have to do with the success and failure of apps and services?
Do you still use BBM? Does anyone you know still use it? Is your Facebook timeline still full of people updating their status to inform you of their latest BBM pin? if you own an iDevice, do you still send as many iMessages as you used to? Do you have as many contacts with iMessage or Facetime that you could just message or call as you did a year ago?
I would imagine that your answer is most likely no to all of the above.
Why is that?
Well, let’s have a look at the possibilities…
I remember a few years ago when BBM hit the height of its popularity, everyone wanted a Blackberry to be on BBM, those who didn’t want a Blackberry wanted an iPhone, and if you couldn’t afford a decent phone you went for an Android (sorry Android fans, back then Android was a terrible system… I say WAS.).
Everyone wanted to be on BBM, every teenager who wasn’t a recluse would sit on their Blackberry typing away on that plastic keyboard to their friends, everyone who had a partner with a Blackberry wanted to get one to connect to Blackberry chat too to keep in touch with their boyfriend or girlfriend on it (sorry, their “bf or gf”), even giving up their prized iPhone 3GS or HTC Whatever to get in on the action / be in their with their partner.
Apple followed suit and built iMessage and Facetime into their handsets so that you can message or call anyone with another iOS device as long as you have their number or email address in your contact book, no more fooling around with pins that look like the text written under a barcode like you had to on BBM, you could just message someone and if the message turned blue, it was a free message via your network, magic!
What was the problem with BBM and iMessage? Your friends had to own a Blackberry for you to be able to send them a BBM message, or an iPhone/iPad/iPod for you to iMessage them, if you had a different phone you couldn’t instant message them unless you were both on Facebook chat, Skype or MSN Messenger at the same time. And people were rarely on these services while out and about. Unlike iMessage and BBM, these services are built around PC internet access and require you to be online constantly, sending and receiving data, both killing your battery and using up your data plan regardless of whether or not you are sending and receiving messages or video calls. And what about the poor folk with either a cheap little Android device, or even a techie-friendly top of the range Android of the time who could access neither service?
Cue Whatsapp and Viber. Many multi-platform messenger services exist, however none have been quite so popular or successful as these two, bringing free instant messages and calls to iOS, Android, Blackberry OS, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone, Symbian and all the other little mobile OSes we rarely hear about in the first world (Bada, anyone? Maemo and Meego ring any bells? No? Don’t worry.) and rendering the proprietary messaging systems practically obsolete. Now you can call, text or send picture messages to anyone with any modern smartphone regardless of their OS, as long as you have their number that they use in Viber or Whatsapp. With another application, Tango, you can make a free video call, Skype style but without the battery or data usage of Skype.
Where does that leave OEMs that have based their current business model on their proprietary services? Well, RIM are in pretty bad shape right now, how often do you see people with a Blackberry these days? How often… Okay, I played that question game earlier in the article and you saw the results. RIM lost their place in the market as a business smartphone to the iPhone and placed their popularity eggs in the BBM basket. Whatsapp caused an earthquake that caused the mighty BBM basket to fall, and RIM are still picking up the pieces, while Windows Phone 8 has taken their place in the market and consumer mind-share.
Apple, a company well known for using tactics of using proprietary hardware, software and gimmicks are also finally showing signs of cracking under their own weight, having grown too big for their boots and refused time and again to use generic hardware (such as micro-USB recharge ports, HD standards, and sim-card sizes for example) and they are beginning to stagger while Android (particular Samsung’s variety) and Windows Phones, all of which don’t use proprietary software or hardware to try and gain control over the consumer, are growing steadily.
What do you think? Do you think proprietary hardware and software is a good thing? Do you dislike it? Do you use BBM or iMessage regularly? Do you think RIM can make a come back or that Apple will fall like Goliath? Do you think multi-platform is the way to go?
Feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section below!