Steve Jobs called this the “post-PC” era, where simpler smartphones and tablets dominate a market that used to be exclusive to desktops and laptops. Even game consoles can do many of the basic services of a computer. The focus on the consumer has, in the past few years, taken on its primary role as the center of developer attention (and rightfully so!). We see it not only in the growth of the smartphone and tablet markets, but also in the growth of the casual game market, and the expansion of game consoles’ capabilities into space that used to be reserved for a standard PC.
Although there’s always room for improvement, I feel like the original problem of not being focused on or properly understanding “the consumer” is fixed. Within the professional development community, it seems to be on our mind quite regularly these days. Good for us! I’m beginning to get a better picture of this new side of the fence, and although there are many wonderful things about it, there are a couple that bother me, which I wanted to throw out there. Maybe others feel the same, or think I’m full of crap–either way, I’m curious to find out.
First, the obvious observation–not everybody is a casual, ordinary consumer. Certainly not many people bothering to read this blog. We exist too, and our demands of our hardware and software are different. We prefer flexibility and performance over simplicity and smallness. We are impressed primarily by the raw power of the devices we hold because, unlike a “normal” consumer, we intend to use it all. Certainly we are in the minority, and that disparity in demand may necessarily lead to more expensive products for us. I’m OK with that… as long as we’re not completely forgotten in this “post-PC” era.
Why would I fear being forgotten? Well, perhaps it is somewhat irrational, but in another sense it has already happened. Modern smartphones and tablets generally run on iOS, Android, and WP7. All support a centralized distribution mechanism (app store) for the apps that users can download. It’s a great way to get apps, and it makes life a lot easier than downloading it on your PC and then syncing it to the device. But on iOS and WP7 (and with the pressure it’s faced, I would suspect eventually Android), this is the one and only mass distribution mechanism allowed. Every time you submit an app it has to be ‘approved’ by someone at Apple/Microsoft, which can take days to weeks and fail for any number of reasons.
So what if, as a developer, I wanted to create some interesting experimental apps. With the portability of these devices, and the cameras, GPS, accelerometers, and wifi at your disposal, there’s a ton of stuff you can do on them that you just can’t really pull off on a laptop. My apps wouldn’t be a big production, just me bashing away at some of the wackier ideas I’ve had. Ideally I’d like to be able to quickly publish new builds on a frequent basis… they’d surely be kinda buggy, and the UX pretty roughshod, but just getting the concept out there and generally working would satisfy me. Tons of popular programs have essentially started this way, yet on iOS and WP7, and probably eventually Android, this way of doing things is simply not allowed.
You may think “Evan, your idea sounds stupid. Why would ordinary users download your buggy, unfinished app?” Because, once again, we’re not all ordinary consumers!! Us geeks still exist, we have smartphones too, and we’d love to try cool new stuff even if it’s really rough. It’s the same reason people sign up to beta test things. What would be wrong with having an App Store/Marketplace Beta Portal for such projects? It’d be special, sectioned off from the rest of the store, and would make you agree to some additional disclaimer when you enter. But once you did, you’d have access to a bunch of interesting little toys people are playing with.
It’s not just a matter of personal preference, either. This community of developers, experimenters, and their geeky fans are the origin of tons of technology that today has finally achieved “consumer-centric” status. Multitouch touchscreens, streaming video, voice recognition, wireless networks, motion tracking (the Kinect), GPS, hardware accelerated graphics, and even digital photography all began life as the often-broken, barely-functional toys of us geeks who loved them, and it was ultimately us being willing to put up with their eccentricity that allowed them to evolve into the more polished, friendly versions they exist as today. In the long run, stifling this community will stifle a huge source of new features for the almighty ordinary consumer.
It’s not all that bad yet, and hopefully I’m just overreacting, but I do see a dramatic change in the mentalities of device/OS developers from truly empowering and enabling users by giving them access to everything their machine is capable of, to locking it down for safety, forcibly funneling developers down the same path to ensure a consistent user experience, and dumbing it down for people who aren’t really interested in the technology. Just remember that although ordinary consumers are the large majority of users and they don’t care what’s going on under the hood or how it got there, they would not have hardly any of that power were it not for the people who do, and our crappy barely-functional toys.