Every 15 years or so the world witnesses a profound shift in computing platforms. In the 1980s the advent of the PC heralded a shift away from mainframe computing. Then along came the Internet and an outpouring of Web-based applications. Now it is mobile's turn to eat everything. And with each tectonic shift in the technology landscape, the sheer volume of computing devices associated with it expands exponentially.
The mighty smartphone is already in the hands of some 2 billion people -- about half of the world's adult population. Every human being will soon own one or more of these powerful computers as costs keep dropping and capabilities increase. Tablet computers, smartwatches and fitness-tracking wristbands are just a foretaste of the things to come. In the future mobile will be at the heart of everything from driverless cars to smartglasses and even connected contact lenses.
And we will all be glued to these, just as young Americans are. Venture capitalist Mary Meeker noted in her annual report on Internet trends that 87 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 who own smartphones say they never separate from them: "My smartphone never leaves my side, night or day." Four out of five say that the first thing they do upon waking "is reach for my smartphone." And three out of five believe that in the next five years "everything will be done on mobile devices."
In the business world the rise of mobile platforms is dramatically transforming many industries, from transportation (think Uber and Lyft vs. taxis) to banking and photography. Consumers everywhere now have access to functionality on their smartphones that makes traditional taxis, bank branches and cameras redundant. This is rapidly changing the competitive landscape in plenty of markets and creating huge headaches for incumbents.
So it's quite surprising that while there has been an outpouring of innovation in consumer apps, there has been relatively little imagination displayed so far in the world of business apps. Some services such as Dropbox, which lets people store and share stuff online, have successfully made their way from the consumer market into the business world. In her presentation Meeker predicted that the mobile "buy button" and ads optimized for mobile devices are what vendors, brands and consumers should all be excited about. But even this shows a lack of vision. The opportunities for transformative applications are far greater than this.
What are needed are more "authentically mobile" business apps -- that is, apps centered on new-to-the-world functionality that would have been inconceivable before the smartphone revolution. Peter Wagner and Martin Giles of Wing Venture Capital very aptly highlighted these issues in a recent blog post on TechCrunch titled "Mobile First, But What's Next?" They lamented the fact that many apps created by businesses still do little more than crudely translate stuff that could be done on desktops to mobile -- as the buy button does.
Authentically mobile business apps take full advantage of some of the unique properties of smartphones and tablets, such as the ability to gather data via sensors and lightweight user inputs; frequent, in-the-moment, "bite-sized" usage; and hyperpersonalization of content and operation. They also place much greater emphasis on the collection and analysis of data than more traditional mobile offerings do.
Uber is an example of an authentically mobile consumer app: Creating it for the desktop would be a pretty pointless exercise. Wagner and Giles think there is a huge opportunity for smart entrepreneurs to come up with such apps for businesses to help them in areas such as human resources, sales and customer management.
Cracking the emerging $100-billion enterprise-app market won't be easy, though. Founders of authentically mobile app start-ups -- and intrapreneurs working on mobile projects -- will have to overcome corporate inertia, worries about security and a host of other obstacles. The vast majority of systems that run business and government are still stuck in the past, after all. These legacy systems were created in the '70s and '80s for mainframe computers that were designed in the '60s. They have been updated with new user interfaces that allow them to be accessed by Web browsers and in PC applications, but this is just a façade, the proverbial lipstick on a pig. That is why they cost companies and government departments the majority of their I.T. budgets to maintain -- and why we get such poor customer service.
It is time now to update these systems to take advantage of the new era of computing. The update has to be more than some lipstick or a buy button; it has to be as disruptive as an Uber app. The prize is massive enough to make that effort worthwhile.