The moment Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) launched the iPhone 5, I was appearing on television, trying to explain to a national newscast why the new device might be important to the world at large. We talked about LTE, we talked about screen sizes and we talked about thinness and lightness. It was only after I took off my lapel mic that I realized the host never asked me anything about what the iPhone 5 might mean in terms of new and improved iOS apps.
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To be fair, there might not have been a lot to say. Most of the feedback from Apple and others was that the iPhone 5's larger screen wouldn't require developers to stretch their apps out. Much less time was devoted to a discussion of the possibilities of this larger canvas. There's almost an assumption that as long as the hardware is popular enough, developers have been handed a ready-made channel for their work. Whether an improved iPhone will lead to more relevant, useful apps doesn't seem worthy of a sound byte.
And yet I was struck earlier this week when I read a diatribe of sorts from John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at Open University, that appeared in the Mail and Guardian. Naughton pointed out the slew of apps that are nothing more than time-wasters, or worse. He also suggested that, thanks to Steve Job's belief that smartphones were really best for using apps rather than simply making phone calls, the industry has created an environment that focuses more on distracting apps than things which could create value for consumers.
"We have replaced the old Microsoft Windows software monoculture with a new one based around an apps-centric user interface," Naughton writes. "And whatever patent litigation says, all smartphones are now either iPhones or iPhone clones: a visiting Martian would be hard pressed to distinguish between an Android device and an Apple product, except perhaps on the basis of price. And, given the way network effects work, we will be stuck in this rut for the next few decades."
Naughton contrasts this with the season's other big smartphone launch: Nokia's Lumia models powered by Windows Phone 8, which takes a more people-centric approach by using its "People" hub to bring together e-mails, social media activity and other interactions at the contact card level.
This raises an interesting question: Do consumers see smartphones primarily as a device on which to pursue an activity--which is what apps offer--or to manage their personal communities? An even better question might be, why can't apps help do that too, rather than relying on the platform provider (in this case, Microsoft) for this?
As much as new devices like the Nokia Lumia and iPhone 5 offer a great opportunity to reignite interest in apps, they also present a challenge to developers to think deeply about the kind of apps that will create more engaged, fulfilling experiences in the consumers that download them. It would be great if, a few iPhone or Windows Phone 8 generations from now, a critic like Naughton won't be able to talk in such broad terms about the uselessness of most apps, and if the notion of an app-centric world could be seen in a more positive light.
P.S. For complete coverage of the iPhone 5 launch and the market's reaction, make sure to check out our special report page: Apple's iPhone 5: Complete coverage--Shane