Apps Don’t Matter, Seriously

Today, Robert Scoble (@scobleizer), one of the big proponents for apps mattering, responded to DHH’s (@DHH) assertion that core experience, not ancillary apps, matters most.

Scoble’s main point is that people don’t want to look stupid so they buy the phone with the most “app potential” even if they don’t use these apps themselves.

This makes no sense to me, but Scoble did an informal survey at Disneyland. So, there’s some research behind his claim.

However, when people show off their phones, they don’t demo the phone or messaging features. These are core requirements. App potential may be one of the deciding factors, but all phones are phones. So, people use other attributes to decide between their options. Price and total cost are nearly always the first deciding points.

People buy phones to be phones. You know, to make and receive telephone calls and to send and receive text messages. That’s the device’s primary purpose. Otherwise, why get a cell phone at all. If app potential mattered most, Android wouldn’t be where it is; it would be an also-ran. This is Jason’s (@grigs) point.

The iPhone is a great example of this, given how pilloried AT&T’s network capabilities were during its exclusive period as the only iPhone carrier.

People bought iPhones because they needed or wanted phones. The App Store was a nice to have attribute that sweetened the deal. When the phone pieces failed to perform, people complained bitterly but most didn’t bail because of the early termination fees, i.e. cost. Apps didn’t keep people using iPhones that didn’t dependably make or receive calls. Cost did.

Having the intertubes come to your phone and having a large app store to add capabilities to your phone are nice to haves. Having a phone is the core must-have requirement.

I have never heard of anyone buying a smartphone specifically for an app, but even if that were the case, most major developers are building for both iOS and Android now. So, the choice would have to be made ultimately based on a different attribute.

Apps definitely make the phone better, but apps don’t drive the purchase.

Price does.

Tablets are a different animal entirely and really shouldn’t be compared to phones because their isn’t a universal must-have requirement that all tablet users share.





  1. “Q: Why did you buy that ? A: It was cheap” isn’t a ‘cool’ answer. It doesn’t help you show-off or impress people. Much easier to make up another reason, such as a personal buy-in or rejection of the i*** ecosystem, carrier or contract deal,  or some esoteric app that isn’t available for the competitor.

  2. I think Scoble probably brings that out in people too, so his survey results are tainted. So, people brag about apps, but apps don’t really drive the sale. That makes sense.

  3. “People buy phones to be phones.” Some people undoubtedly do, but a phone is a phone approach seems to discount the huge amount of time that the people who carry these things around appear to be doing absolutely nothing on the device other than using it to interrupt the eye-line from what otherwise would be shoe-gazing. Whatever could they be doing? I see lots of people using phones, but the percentage of making calls on them is quite low.

    I do agree with you about people not wanting to look stupid as a motivator, though that sentiment does give a clue to the reasons people buy stuff – not just on cost or functionality, but brand. Wrap it all up as UX maybe. How all this varies by user profile, region, etc, makes it much complicated than it seems.

  4. The base requirement is phone. Otherwise, why not just buy an iPod Touch, or a tablet with carrier service? Sure, people use the other features of the phone extensively, but why buy a phone (and get into a contract) if you don’t need a phone?

    To be clear, I think the people-not-wanting-to-look-stupid motivator is bogus outside a small slice of consumers. Scoble lives and works with these people and is one himself, which leads him to assume it’s a normal motivator.

  5. Man, we need scobelizer asking questions in Wal*Mart in Long Beach like I did yesterday:

    Q: “Do you sell iPhones?” (On not seeing any on display)

    A: “Yes, but we only have one. A white 16GB. We keep it out back.”

  6. The thing that stands out most about that story is what he means by “out back” and what else do they have there?  I always wondered why Walmart would carry iPhones at all. Apple cracks down on discounting, so what’s the appeal?

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