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Scoble is right about iPhone users. But the game isn’t over yet

Robert Scoble has a post up about why Apple’s key advantage is the breadth of the app store. And he’s right – but the game isn’t over yet.

85,000 is the headline figure, and what it allows Apple to leverage is a classic “long tail of usefulness”. For me, 99.99% of those applications are (to me) useless crap that would have no bearing on whether I stick with iPhone. Unfortunately for everyone else, that still leaves 8 or 9 apps that act like heavy anchors, dragging me back to Apple’s platform.

But suppose Nokia, Android, or whoever got the developers of those apps to port them to their platform? Great! They’ve won me as a customer. But the problem is that this is a long tail: maybe four or five of those would be common ones, but three or four would be ones which only me and a relatively few other people wanted. So the actual base of applications that are “must haves” would be much wider, in the low thousands at a guess. That’s a long way from Robert’s claim that you need all 85,000, but it’s still a pretty daunting number.

And the experience of Apple in the 90’s, when the Mac was on the back foot, proves that it’s no good having “equivalent” applications – once people get used to having app X, they want app X, not app Y which does pretty much the same thing.

However, there’s a catch: it’s worth remembering that most people haven’t bought smart phones yet. Smartphone penetration remains comparatively tiny, and in the biggest growth markets for phones (Africa, BRIC) it’s still dirt-cheap simple phones which are driving the growth.

And people are used to buying phones on hardware features: the best camera, for example, is a big influence. That’s why Apple has been advertising with “there’s an app for that” – raising a flag for the one big advantage they have. But until you actually use a phone which is infinitely malleable via applications, it’s hard to appreciate why it’s so cool. So it’s not a totally easy sell.

(As an aside, this is the reason why the iPod Touch is so important: it’s a “gateway drug” for the app store. You might not buy an Apple phone, but you might replace your old iPod with the touch… and then find that you love the apps. At which point, you’ll buy an iPhone next time.)

So the game isn’t over yet, and there’s plenty still to play for. But Apple has a head-start, and if I was a betting man, I’d place my money on the iPhone. Essentially, it’s Apple’s lead to throw away – but, as others will no doubt point out, Apple has thrown away leads before.

(Update: John Gruber’s written an interesting response to this, and I’ve written a further response posing what I think is an interesting question: What happens when there aren’t 100,000 apps on the store, but one million?)

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  • http://www.definitivemind.com James Katt

    Just because the iPhone does not have the best camera on a smartphone did not stop people from publishing books of iPhone photos and publishing photos online.

    If anything, the iPhone has the most prolific smartphone photographers. Size is not everything on the iPhone.

  • Jake

    “That’s why Apple has been advertising with “there’s an app for that” – raising a flag for the one big advantage they have.”

    Only one advantage? What about all of the others? Elegant design, super user-friendliness, seamless syncing through iTunes.

  • Ian Betteridge

    James, I suspect that it’s the overall package that’s caused a lot of that. The camera is crap, but it’s to get images off, to upload them online, to use it overall.

    Jake: None of those are actually unique to Apple. There’s lots of elegant hardware design around – in fact, when I put the iPhone next to some other phones, I wish Apple would take a few design cues from them. It’s user-friendly… until you try and do two things at once, when it’s just irritating. Some would argue that the Pre’s interface is far more user-friendly for this reason.

    And iTunes… well, it’s a double-edged sword. There are people around who really, really hate iTunes. And many argue that syncing music and images isn’t even necessary – mount as a drive, drag and drop is a better approach. I’ll caveat that with the fact that I like the iTunes approach, but it’s worth remembering that just because I like it doesn’t mean that it works for everyone.

  • Jean-Denis

    >”That’s why Apple has been advertising with “there’s an app for that” – raising a flag for the one big advantage they have.”

    >Only one advantage?

    Of course not the only one. But it can be argued that all the other ones are easy (or at least possible) to replicate.

    The app store is *the* barrier to entry for would-be competitors.

  • Ian Betteridge

    Jean-Denis: Exactly right. Of course, if you were Microsoft, you might try and pay people to develop for your platform… ;)

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  • Steven

    “And people are used to buying phones on hardware features: the best camera, for example, is a big influence.”

    This is a common techno-geek delusion from which you apparently suffer. People like yourself are used to evaluating and purchasing phones based on a spec list. However, you are in the minority, and this is not nearly as big an issue for the “average” person as you would have it. If this were so, the iPhone would not be successful, because its spec list, taken at face value, is nothing spectacular. The UI is what is responsible for iPhone’s appeal – folks are buying it in spite of what individual features it may lack, and even in spite of the boat anchor of a carrier it’s wedded to. The UI is not an issue for you because you and your ilk get your rocks poking around nested menus and “discovering” how features are accessed and utilized. You spent your formative years searching video games for easter eggs, so a retarded UI is no challenge for you. This is not a value judgement, just my stereotypical supposition of who you probably are and why you express the opinions you do.

    Speaking of the UI, contrary to Jean-Denis’ comment, the user experience is the primary feature which the competition seems unable to replicate. The app store can be duplicated – albeit not easily. It’s a question of willingness, not ability – willingness to pour the requisite resources into creating a developer community. Of course, having to develop for multiple hardware platforms is always going to be an Achilles Heel for Android. If the UI is attractive and the hardware environment predictable, developers will seek *you* out. Which is why Palm’s seeming antipathy toward a nascent Pre developer community earlier this year was so puzzling.

  • Ian Betteridge

    Steven: No, sorry, you’re wrong. Try standing in a phone store for half an hour this Saturday and listening to the customers talk to sales people. They fall into two categories: The ones who already know what phone they want, and those who come in saying “I want a great camera/to use Facebook/play music” etc.

    Secondly, the iPhone UI really isn’t actually all that great – there’s a lot of “surprise and delight” (the way that the UI designers have used easing and “weight” in motion, for example), but there’s also a lot of rough edges. Four taps to get from one inbox to another if you have multiple mail accounts? That’s stupid. No doubt Apple will iron those out as it’s already ironed some others out, but the UI isn’t the nirvana you’re painting it.

    FYI, I’ve never found an easter egg in a game in my life. Thanks for the assumptions, though. Nice try.

  • Steven

    No prob, Ian. I’m glad you took it in the light-hearted spirit in which it was intended.

    Suffice to say my experience, with respect to the relative importance of phone features, has been quite different from yours. For example, I acknowledge that there is often concern as to whether or not a phone has a camera at all. But since there’s no such thing as a “great” camera on a cell phone anyway, I can’t see any degree of greatness being a deal-breaker. But then again, I’m a photography snob – some background on me :-).

    As for the UI, no, I would not characterize it as “Nirvana,” either. However, it was light-years ahead of anything else that was available when it was introduced, and I still don’t know that much progress has been made toward catching or surpassing it in the nearly three years since. I’ll take four taps over playing Menu Monster Mash any day. And how many of these same phone store dwellers of whom you speak bought an iPhone last year when it didn’t even have a camera? In the end the UI was, and continues to be, more important than the lack of a particular feature.

  • Ian Betteridge

    Heh, I know the camera on the first iPhone wasn’t up to much Steven, but still saying it “didn’t even have [one]” is a bit harsh – even if you are a camera snob ;)