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December 26, 2009

A Springier #iPhone Springboard: Why, When, and How

Once again it's the Year Of Mobile.  Let's put aside for the moment whether you think this is still another macromyopic projection.  Assuming you buy that, there's no denying the iPhone's leadership position in the mobile ecosystem.  If mobile's important to you, the iPhone desktop is "strategic ground" whose evolution you should care about.

A frequent beef about the iPhone is that all apps are accessed from a single-level desktop, and that you have to swipe across several screens to get to the app you want.  (Sometimes, this can be life-threatening, as when a friend launches PhoneSaber, and you're slow on the draw.)  Today we're mostly stuck with this AFAIK, since my cursory research (browsing plus buttonholing some Apple Store folks) didn't reveal any immediate plans to upgrade the iPhone OS to address this.

It's interesting to see how what tribe you're from influences how you'd solve this.  If Microsoft (of yore, anyway) made the iPhone, the solution might likely be some sort of Windows Explorer-type hierarchical folders.  If Google made the iPhone, the answer to this challenge might be Gmail-style labels / tags.  If you come from the Apple/ Adobe RIA world, Expose might appeal to you.

From the business side, my mind runs to the "Why" that will shape the "When" and "How".  Here's a 2010 prediction:  big firms will stop thinking in terms of having one iPhone app, and more in terms of fielding "branded suites" of iPhone apps. 

Let's say you're a media firm, with multiple media properties.  These properties might share a similar functional need solved by a common app, like a reader.  Or, a single media property (say, a men's lifestyle one) might want a collection of lighter-weight, function-specific apps like a wine-chooser, a tie-chooser (take pictures of your ties, then have the app suggest -- via expert opinion, crowdsourcing, or an API for your significant other to code to -- which of your ties might go well with a shirt you see / snap a picture of at the store), and so on.

Without more dimensionality to Springboard, the BigCo app developer has two choices:

  • Lard up a single app to do more within the "brand experience" it creates with its iPhone app.  But monolithic apps are slower and less reliable, presumably even if you're using the Tab Bar framework.  Plus, monolithic apps don't expand BigCo's share of the iPhone Springboard desktop, presumably a desirable strategic objective.
  • Build multiple apps that get scattered across the Springboard, compromising the "critical mass" feel of the "branded suite" (apps that appear together make more of a brand impression than apps appearing separately, on different screens.  I don't have any data to support this, and you could argue the opposite, that apps scattered across screens provide more frequent brand reminders.  I think folks might be likelier mnemonically to remember "five swipes to the men's lifestyle screen".  Anybody got data?).

The BigCo marketing department has a choice not available to the lowly app developer, however, and that's to write Apple a check.  It's reasonable to expect that we won't all get access to the new "MDS" (Multi-Dimensional Springboard) API BigCo gets.  Today, Apple already price-discriminates among iPhone developers: the Standard enrollment charge is $99, while the Enterprise is $299.  As this platform becomes even more important, and as BigCos want to do more with it, it's reasonable to expect that Apple will get even more creative with its pricing, private or publicly.

So that's the "Why".  As for "When", I'm guessing no earlier than 2011, given Apple's Cathedral-style approach to iPhone development (this might provide an opportunity for Android, BTW). (Thanks for re-tweeting this, @perryhewitt .)

And "How"? I'm betting on an Expose-style interface.  Swipe down to "zoom in" to a single screen, swipe up to move to a "higher altitude" and view multiple screens at once, perhaps with a subtle label or background (brand-appropriate, natch) for each one.

Who's closer to this?  What do you know?

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