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The magic of the app

27 Feb 2012
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This is my editorial from the Spring 2012 issue of HardCopy magazine:

It has long been the case that we view intellectual property – software, the written word, music or film – differently to real, physical objects. This stems from a feeling that copying intellectual property without paying is somehow different because it doesn’t actually deprive the author or the distributor of anything: steal a TV, and the owner can no longer watch television; copy a song, and the owner has still got the original.

This attitude was compounded by the growth of the World Wide Web through the 1990s. Right from the start, one of the big benefits of the Web was that – once you’d paid your phone bill – everything else was free. However, once we’d got over the novelty of it all, many of us started wondering how we were going to make a living in this brave new world. Companies like Amazon and eBay didn’t have a problem as they were selling ‘real things’, but those of us in publishing, music and eventually even film had to face the fact that no-one seemed to be prepared to pay for what we produced.

Meanwhile, the mobile phone market was growing, handsets were getting more sophisticated, and something very strange started to happen. On the Web, publishers struggled to convince their audience to hand over a paltry sum to read their articles or download their music; but on the phone, users were happily handing over several pounds in exchange for a couple of seconds of banal ringtone.

And that culture continues today. As a business model, charging people to access your Web site simply doesn’t work – if you’re not selling ‘real things’, then the only model that does seem to work is one that relies on advertising. But on the mobile phone, wrap it up into an ‘app’ and people are prepared to pay. It’s something to do with the process of downloading and installing that gives you the illusion of ownership and personalisation – things that we are prepared to pay for. There’s also the branding offered by the Apple App Store or the Windows Phone Marketplace, or indeed Orange or Vodafone, that creates the impression of endorsement.

This is the magic of the app, and for the software industry its a big incentive for targeting mobile devices. It’s also a paradigm that Microsoft, through Metro on Windows 8, and Apple are keen to bring to the desktop. However there are wider implications. One of the great strengths of the Web has been the lack of ownership: nobody decides what can and cannot be published, or charges for the privilege. As users we like not having to pay, and we value the lack of censorship; but as publishers we favour apps and, although we don’t want censorship, we would like publishers to have to jump through some hoops as that does confer some sense of value on what does get published. Apps are more controlled, both by those running the app stores and, on mobile devices, by the carriers. The app model does make for a safer and more profitable environment, but we do risk losing something important in the process.

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