Stop the App Madness

The mobile web is growing big time.  If you don’t believe me then take a look at Resource Shelf blog post  referring to the 2009 Mobile Web Trend Report  from QuantCast. Mobile web consumption grew 110% in North America and 148% worldwide in 2009. While these growth numbers are huge, they still only represent 1.3 percent of all web pageviews. 

So everybody needs to settle down just a bit and breathe.  Yes the mobile web has grown tremendously and I am willing to bet (along with QuantCast 2010 sneak peak) that the mobile web will continue to grow.  Once we just had the Blackberry and iPhone as our major mobile web movers and shakers, but now Google has gotten into the fight as well as a whole boat load of cell phone makers. 

What should librarians and library vendors do about this?! 

First, resist all temptation, however strong, to run out and create an app.  Just don’t do it.  There are many, many, many things you and your people need to be doing and considering before you start down the app path.

The app path looks all pretty and inviting but you are seeing it through tech colored glasses that sometimes forget to show you that you will need to make more than just one app to reach your users.  At best you will need to create at least two apps (iPhone and Blackberry) to hit the majority of users.  But according to the Quantcast report, Motorola’s Droid, HTC’s Eris, and Palm Pixi were some of the most popular mobile gifts given this Christmas season. Don’t forget Google’s phone was just unveiled.  So if these platforms continue in popularity you now are faced with possibly creating apps for even more platforms.

Creating the app is just one problem.  Even if you decide that is completely impossible to make an app for every platform and you decide to just make two (iPhone and Blackberry -two most popular platforms right now), how are you and your company or library going to support, maintain, and upgrade the apps? Don’t create an app and just leave it. You must improve upon it.

Second, focus on your website.  I know it may sound silly that I mention this because lots of people are accessing the web from phones and every body’s instinct is to “have an app for that.”  But the most effective way to reach ALL of your mobile users is to create a mobile friendly website.  If your website is mobile friendly then you don’t have to worry how many of your users have iPhones, Blackberrys, Androids, Pixis, or whatever the next trendy sparkly new device, THEY ALL CAN USE YOUR CONTENT if your website is mobile friendly. 

Creating a mobile friendly website is the biggest bang for your buck.  It doesn’t require as much programming knowledge as an app and you are able to target way more people more effectively rather than constantly creating different apps.  Additionally you should set your mobile website up to feed you the usage stats.  People on mobile phones use the web differently.  Not only do we use non-mobile friendly sites differently on our phones but we use mobile friendly sites differently too.  What I am trying to say is that people who access a website from a computer usually are doing it for different reasons or looking for different things than people who are on their phones.  Therefore, even if you plan out your mobile website, it stands to reason your first version will have some different usage statistics than your traditional website.  Don’t just sit there with that information, use it and re-design your mobile website based on your usage stats to help satisfy your users’ needs. 

Once you have created a mobile website, looked at the usage statistics, redesign and tweak the mobile site, then you may start to consider creating an app.  But don’t just create an app to have an app.  There are so many lame and crummy apps from good companies (and not good companies) lying around in app land that  it is a bit like looking for survivors in zombie movie.  There are tons of lifeless and useless apps wandering the country side waiting to latch on to you. 

I feel apps are the new blog.  Way back when, blogs were the “in” thing to have.  Everybody wanted one for the website but nobody realized how much effort it took to create a good one and maintain it.  So you had a ton of blogs rotting away in the Internet wasteland.  There are so many apps out there for my iPhone that if an app is not as good or better than the traditional (or God willing) mobile website, I don’t bother with it.  I have app-athy and so do many other mobile users.

For example, there is thread on Web4Lib about a new app from LibraryThing called LocalBooks.  Because I have an iPhone and I am a librarian I was excited at first to read about the app.  I was also excited to see that it was rated 5 stars.  I downloaded the app and tried it out.  I have used LibraryThing on the web so I was expecting the app to do what the website does AND then some.  Wow I was disappointed with the app.  The app is called LocalBooks, you would think that it at least lets you do what you normally do on the LibraryThing website and find books locally (or anywhere). Nope.  All you can do is find bookstores and libraries in your area and search for events matching your topic.  Basically it AroundMe (another free popular iPhone app) with an event search.

So I typed in Twilight (which is all the rage right now and sure to have events somewhere).  The nearest “twilight” event to me (in Cleveland) was the Barrett Wharton public library branch (250 miles away in Barrett, WV) and when I tap on it, no upcoming events are listed.  Now how on earth did it find the Barrett Public library was having a “twilight” event if no events are listed? 

It does only a fair job of finding bookstores or libraries near me.  I decided to search for bookstores and libraries near me (while at a library). It failed to find Mathews Medical Books which according to AroundMe is 416 yards away and it listed the library that I was sitting in as being 3.19 miles away (AroundMe listed my library 419 yds away).  AroundMe was slightly off but LocalBooks couldn’t find a national bookstore and was way off on library location, if you are in a city (which I am) there are a lot of things packed into 3.19 miles. 

During the Web4Lib discussion Roy Tennant with OCLC Research mentioned that WorldCat has an app that will find books.  The WorldCat Mobile app is a sad neutered version of the traditional website.  I searched for Hurst’s the Heart.  Despite typing exactly the same thing, the iPhone app shows different results than the traditional website.  For example, the STATRef version shows up on the mobile app version and doesn’t show up on the website version.  WHY?!  That wasn’t the only oddity.  In the web version when I click on the link to the holding library I am immediately sent to the library’s catalog record for that book.  This does not happen in the mobile app version.  My guess would be because the app can’t handle the multiple ILS platforms out there.  Additionally I can’t request books to be delivered to my library using the mobile app which I can through the website.  These two things are the most powerful parts to WorldCat, therefore why would a I bother with the mobile app when traditional library site is the most functional?!  So why make an app that is wimpier and less productive than your website?!

Here you have two very popular traditional library type websites that decided to jump into the app world, yet neither of them have mobile friendly websites!  I use their websites quite often but I deleted their apps after only a day.  It is not my intention to pick on LibraryThing or WorldCat.  I think they are just two of the many out there who got sucked into the app hype and decided to make an app.  There are tons of medical apps out there that aren’t worth a darn either.  

There are so many junk apps out there I will rarely if ever pay for an app.  (I got a $20 iTunes gift card last year for Christmas, and I still have $8 on my account. I bought mostly songs.)  I won’t pay for any app unless it has at least 4 stars and I have read the reviews, even then I won’t pay above $1.99.

Medical and hospital libraries and library vendors (database, book, and journal companies) please think before you app.

***Update Jan. 10, 2010***

Just read an article on MSN, Apps call, but will your phone answer?  where they discuss the issue of an extremely diverse and fragmented mobile phone market that is hurting the app market.  I mentioned in my post that if you want to reach people through apps, you are going to have to design different apps for different phones.  It turns out I was overly simplistic with this statement.  Depending on the phone and its operating system, one app designed for a specific brand of phone like the Android, may not work on new Android models with newer operating systems. 

The app market is ugly and really not where librarians or librarian vendors need to be hanging out until some standardization happens.  The good news is that there is already some standardization happening in web development.  As the article mentions HTML5 will begin to make it easier to have robust mobile friendly websites that are platform independent and work on all phones.  But that doesn’t change the fact that people still will use the web differently on the phone vs. the computer, so you need to look at your usage statistics and your users and design something that works best on the mobile.  Just because HTML5 will allow you to create a more robust mobile website doesn’t mean that you should always design it that way.  Sometimes less is more, especially to those of us on 4 inch screens.

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