If you’ve been in the tech industry for a while, you occasionally feel history repeating itself. New computing paradigms (like the smartphone, for example) have typically been extinction events for the software leaders on whatever was the formerly dominant platform. The big three app leaders in MS-DOS—Lotus, WordPerfect, and Borland—were all crippled by the transition to Windows. The Windows leaders, in turn, were unable to make themselves dominant in the world of web apps. Now mobile is the new paradigm, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that mobile-first app companies lead most sales categories.
First, the rules of good app design are reset by a new paradigm. Think back to when the web first became prominent. How many websites and web apps looked awful because they were designed to resemble either printed pages or PC screens? Companies took the design practices they already knew and blindly applied them to the new medium. They were quickly outcompeted by people who learned how to design specifically for the web.
Today you see a similar process going on in mobile. Mobile apps and websites designed using PC principles are often over-featured and unengaging to mobile users. The practice of "porting" an app or website to mobile, rather than redesigning it for the new paradigm, usually fails.
The second challenge is that when changing paradigms, users tend to reconsider their software standards. If you buy a new PC, the chances are very good that you’ll buy the same apps for it that you used in your last computer. But when you bought your first smartphone, you didn’t immediately go out and look for mobile versions of your PC apps—if you did, you’re in a small minority. Most people went to the App Store to look around for something new.
This process of exploration means that existing software developers can’t count on customer loyalty—usually one of their greatest strengths—to win in the new paradigm. There's a familiarity and learning effect that makes people stay with the apps they already know if they are on the same platform. Changing platforms forces people to relearn anyway, so it tends to reset those preferences. Existing app makers have to resell their customers, an activity that most big companies are not ready to do.
The third challenge is denial. Most companies facing a platform change underestimate the size of the challenge and the amount of work needed to deal with it. They stick to their old practices and underinvest until it’s too late to recover. If you want to see that process in action, check out Microsoft’s history in mobile computing.
Startups often succeed in a new paradigm because they have none of these disadvantages. They’re not burdened by all the old design assumptions made by an existing company. Because they usually live full time on the new platform, they learn faster. And they can often identify ways to peel off a chunk of customers from an existing software company, before it even knows those customers are at risk. As the old saying goes, it’s like being pecked to death by ducks.
So if you’re running a mobile startup, it’s comforting to know that the forces of nature are on your side. But don’t get too comfortable, because when the next computing paradigm comes along you’ll be the one to be blindsided. Speaking of which, do you really think you can port your smartphone app to tablets and have it succeed? And how will Google Glass and smart watches change your business? The end may be nearer than you think.
Michael Mace is mobile strategist at UserTesting.com. A longtime veteran of Silicon Valley, he cofounded two software startups, worked as an executive at Apple and Palm, and consulted on strategy and product planning to many of the tech industry’s leading firms. He’s a well-known tech industry speaker, with keynotes at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, speeches at conferences including CES and CTIA, and appearances on CNN, BBC, and Bloomberg News.
Michael was vice president of product planning and chief competitive officer at Palm, where he worked closely with app developers, network operators, and mobile phone manufacturers to plan for the future of mobile data. At Apple he held a variety of leadership positions, including director of Mac platform marketing, director of marketing for the Home and Education Division, and director of worldwide Customer & Competitive Analysis. He is the author of Map the Future, a book on planning strategy in fast-changing markets.