The Limited Life of Mobile Applications
The Mobile App Prediction: Since I’m frequently asked about mobile device use in the insurance industry, I’d like to restate a prediction I’ve been making for a few years: Custom, downloadable applications for smart phones will become less important or unnecessary. Having told many people this, it’s been a bit of a tough time for my analyst ego. The rise of the Apple iPhone and its widely touted app store has brought an explosion of downloadable mobile applications. With several other devices and mobile platforms attempting to mimic Apple’s success, it looks like the importance of custom, downloadable applications for mobile phones will only be increasing.
The Desktop App Evolution: Compare mobile applications to desktop computers. Before high-speed internet access was widely available in North America, most applications (both business and consumer) were installed on the computer, either via download or via disk. IT organizations at insurers spent a great deal of their time distributing and installing enterprise software on each user’s machine. As internet connections became more ubiquitous and--just as importantly--web browsers became more flexible and powerful, these installed applications were replaced by web-based interfaces. Installed desktop applications included just about all business activities but also most consumer tasks: personal banking, weather updates, stock trading, and personal e-mail, just to name a few examples. These are all activities that are primarily done through a web browser today. Some users complained that the shift from desktop application to web-based interface resulted in a loss of usability or functionality. But the appeal of a platform so easily distributable, upgradable, and maintainable was worth the tradeoff, and as Web 2.0 technologies have matured, web-based applications have surpassed many desktop equivalents in terms of ease of use.
A Similar Mobile Path: It was my belief that mobile applications were following a similar path to desktop applications. Just a few years ago, businesses that required mobile use were not only designing custom applications for mobile devices, they were designing entire, single-purpose mobile devices (whether gathering paramed surveys or managing a warehouse floor). These devices became more generalized and business could focus on the applications rather than the entire physical unit. And as mobile phones became smart phones, the devices themselves became cheaper, multi-purpose platforms. The next logical step would be to generalize the distribution mechanism itself. Instead of requiring a downloaded application onto the phone, I expected this to be replaced by the mobile web. Mobile web applications will be easier to upgrade and maintain and can be the based on the same web applications used on a desktop computer (except, perhaps, with a scaled-back interface). When I first saw an iPhone browsing fully rendered web pages I thought my prediction had come true.
Is my prediction wrong? Instead, the iPhone App Store explosion occurred and we entered the golden age of downloadable mobile applications. The very device that I thought was going to prove that downloadable applications were unnecessary proved the opposite. But I don’t think this means I’m wrong. I just think we need more time. Soon, mobile browsing will become more flexible and powerful, just like it did on desktop computers. Technologies like “Flash Lite” will bring interactive and usable interfaces to the phone browser. The trade-off between features and ease-of-distribution will shrink. And instead of worrying about maintaining new channels, insurers will be able to focus on their existing platforms with web-based interfaces. Some applications will always remain downloaded on the device, just like some applications remain installed on desktop computers. But--especially when companies are distributing applications to all of their employees or customers--the clear answer is a robust, functional, mobile web. I think that the few insurers who have released mobile applications have done a great job demonstrating an aggressive and modern approach to technology. But, eventually, every insurer who has invested in a web-based channel will be taking full advantage of every mobile device.