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App Stores and Quarter Machines

. wandereye

App stores feel much like those $.25 machines at the exits of supermarkets. They look so cool on the placard with stardust trailing happy flight or ponies or charms. There are the scientific and gadget like machines with fake handcuffs or Chinese finger torture tubes, super bounce balls or fake moustaches. They are positioned strategically in the transitional exit, post-checkout space of the store, calling for you to spend the change jingling in your pocket. Anthropometrics play a crucial role in child recruitment, close to the floor. The stamp machines are adult-height. The micro-cost conveys disposability or one-time use, frivolous cheap fun used to pass the time in a waiting room, boring car ride home, an artifact of a trek to the supermarket. But a small price to pay for countless minutes of joy. With credit cards and cash cards, loose change seems to be disappearing as fast as these quarter machines. Next to them now stands the "red box" where I can, for $0.99, rent a recently released DVD for a night, encouraging a trip back for the return the next day. Even the red box feels slightly obsolete noting my ability to stream movies from Netflix or rent or buy and download from Amazon or the Apple Store (or pirate via IRC or some other exclusively nerdy portal). But there is some behavior here as universal as the dollar store model and as universal as the penny arcade. The pay-to-play culture, the leasing of an experience. The add-on frosting to the hearty cake of aisle browsing and staple stocking. The evidence of the ability to consume mass manufactured goods imported from third world countries that used to be hard to find or high tech novelty (like casio finger watches). I know about these things because I do, in fact, collect them. In my desk is a collection of every "homie" I could find. I used to collect stickers.

When the iPhone came out and I started using the Apple store, the wonder of all the things I could buy for $0.99 was overwhelming. I'd worked on phone UI before, one of the designs very close to the iPhone for a major cell manufacturer. In 2000, we all saw the coming age of the "smart phone" but few saw the coming of the "platform" that would extend the use of a phone beyond messaging or contact management, maybe music playing. Multitouch added a level of interactivity that brought us out of the vernacular of point and click. Back then there was the "WAP" version of the "mobile" website. There was texting. There were games reformatted from the days of my youth like snake and pong. Suddenly my phone become a handheld gaming console. Beyond games and communication and PIM and music, the phone remained separate from a tool. But then it caught up with technology and caught up with the way we pay for things (on the internet) and utilized an old vernacular (the dime store model) to distribute goods through a platform (built on music sales at first, expanding to movies and then apps and books). Pricing played a key role at first as I quickly racked up embarrassingly high bills thinking $0.99 was $0.99 without multiplying exponentially. All of the apps looked so fun and interesting to me. Suddenly I didn't need a laptop to write a document or edit a photo. Suddenly my phone camera had better resolution than my digital SLR. Suddenly, I didn't need a guitar tuner. Suddenly, my car's GPS console was stupid and ugly.

It is this transition that is leading to a coming transition. The phone I own has replaced my camera, my guitar tuner, my word processor, my map or GPS device, my music player. It is soon going to replace my wallet with mobile payments, my driver's license and insurance card (with encryption), my transponder (already sort of with Google Latitude but soon with NFC), my virtual assistant and possibly therapist. The point to all of this is that innovation, while disruptive sometimes, doesn't abandon some universal human factors when applied but sometimes leverages them to enable adoption. My phone can't do everything but is a platform that can become almost anything I would consider a tool. With my otter box, it could even be a hammer. There are cases and add-ons that enable it to be a laser pointer or bottle opener. Which is the other point: innovation is enabling. Inventions often answer to the calling for a tool or a product that solves a problem in a new way. Dyson's vacuum cleaner for example gets rid of the problem of using a bag. But like the vending machines, their placement in the transition space of the exit at the supermarket probably came from observation of and awareness in how people shop and the loose change in their pockets as well as their needs for the car ride home or their state of mind while walking out of a store (parents needing to placate hyper children after an exhausting stroll down aisles packed with an overwhelming amount of value).

Price-wise, I bought my phone for over $200. My service plan at the time was over $100 a month. To add to such a (to me) pricey object for $0.99 was a mute point at that point. The possibility of the applications I could buy to transform my phone into something else was and is much like the feeling I get when I find the novelty of continually rotating swag available in quarter machines at the super market exit. The similarities are endless: sharing them with friends by showing them off in use, using them once and forgetting about them in the clutter of more. Last, the fact that the machines are always updating themselves like the app store is.

To reflect, after several years of using my phone, here is a list of the apps that stuck with me (besides the "core" PIM, Phone, Text, Email, Web Browser, Music and Video Player, Camera) in order of importance and/or frequency of use:

01. Evernote
02. Google Maps (mobile on iPhone)
03. Facebook Mobile
04. Delicious Mobile (via bookmarklet Javalet in Mobile Safari)
05. Skype Mobile
06. Scrabble
07. Paypal Mobile
08. Grubhub
09. Fandango
10. 55k Quotes

Some interesting articles/links on GigaOm today:

People Download Lots of Apps, But Many Get Discarded

Feature Creep Emerges as Next Challenge for Mobile Devs


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