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The trouble with mobile applications: an identity crisis

Is the mobile application becoming a victim of its own success? At least that?s the sense some industry observers may get listening to the chatter at the various mobile marketing events nationwide.

Just last week panelists at an event in New York whined about the number of applications out there in the marketplace ? a euphemism for the Apple App Store ? and how difficult it has become to discover them.

Others grumbled about the utility of such applications, especially when the mobile Web is gaining more acceptance as an entry point to the Internet. One of the speakers went so far as to dismiss applications as a fad that will soon be eclipsed by the Web.

And then, of course, there was the inevitable discussion over the cost of mobile applications and the purpose they really serve.

Do application developers have something to worry about? Do application stores have something to fret over? Does Apple need to think again?

Indeed, the application problem is Apple?s problem. Since its launch a year ago, the Apple App Store has recorded more than 1.2 billion downloads of the 75,000-plus applications posted. That is no mean feat.

Now this is a back-of-the-envelope guess, but combined, the number of applications available worldwide would total under 150,000 ? the Apple App Store?s database, plus GetJar?s 50,000-plus and a few thousand each from Nokia?s Ovi, the BlackBerry App World, the Palm Catalog and a few others.

If marketers and consumers cannot handle 150,000 applications, what will they do one year down the road ? when the number may quadruple?

Many marketers are upset over Apple?s closed network. Well, there?s nothing they can do about that. That?s just the way Apple works with its App Store. There were similar gripes over Google?s algorithms for ranking search results in the early years of the search engine?s existence.

But there is some substance to each one of the issues that repeatedly crop up at one mobile event after the other. What really is the role of the mobile application?

Application developers and Apple haven?t made answering that question easier. Indeed, why would anyone want to have an application when an easily accessed mobile-friendly Web site would offer the same information?

App traps
Put simply, there are several issues with applications: search and discoverability, costs, audience and ROI.

Take search. It isn?t difficult searching for an application within the Apple App Store. Type in a keyword and the application pops up. But, as some say, that?s not how consumers may discover applications. They look to the categories and click on those tabs. And that?s where only the most popular applications show up. What about the rest?

Another issue is the ability to search on the mobile device itself. Consumers, especially iPhone owners, are wont to download plenty of applications. This means the applications may go several pages deep on the mobile phone. That itself presents a visibility issue for the applications.

The final search irritant for application developers is the Apple App Store?s walled garden. Google?s search spiders don?t crawl the Apple App Store, or any rival application store, for that matter. That is a serious blow for visibility and discoverability.

While Apple is not tipping its hand, it may soon create a system where marketers can pay to optimize their applications within the App Store.

In essence, Apple may take a leaf out of Google?s book and supplement organic search with paid search. Maybe an AppWords program is in the making?

Costs are another issue. A smart application is not cheap. For marketers with trimmed budgets, the choice of going mobile itself may be heavily debated. And then when the decision?s made, it need not be a false choice between mobile site and mobile application. But that?s not the way the world works.

In many cases, it is far cheaper to build out a mobile or mobile-friendly Web site than it is to create a mobile application.

While the site is accessed from all devices, the application is limited to the handset model and platform. This limitation is factored into the cost comparisons.

Which leads to the third issue: audience. Once up on the mobile Web, the brand?s site is accessed from all Web-enabled smartphones. Can that be said for applications? No. They are platform-specific.

And that ties in with the ROI aspect. How do marketers justify the ROI on an application? What are the metrics to measure branding or direct marketing success? Are the metrics the same as used for the mobile Web?

The answer to the last question is probably yes, especially if the application is Web-based. Still, marketers need the satisfaction of knowing that the application is showing some returns, either via awareness, engagement or transactions.

This is not meant to be a polemic against mobile applications. They serve a key purpose in the mobile universe.

Indeed, mobile applications are the ideal tool for building brand loyalty with consumers ? a willingness to share valuable phone real estate is the ultimate endorsement ? and for conducting repetitive tasks on the mobile devices without firing up the Web browser.

Do those utilities come across loud and clear? No.

It is obvious that the mobile applications category is suffering from an identity crisis. Applications must be discussed in marketing language and not technology razzle-dazzle. If applications are treated like a toy, then only children will play.