Eric Tang's Blog

Startups, Software, Everything Wildcard

The Age of Mobile Integration

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When Tim Berners-Lee created the hypertext (think web links) at CERN in 1989, he forever changed how the internet worked by creating connections between resources. The simple concept of open and sharable references means web experiences can be integrated together in an infinite possibility. Thus the web, from its birth, promotes integration. Mobile (at least the version we know today), on the other hand, was conceived without that concept. This fundamental difference has been one of the biggest limiting factors in the mobile ecosystem for the past 6 years.

Information on the web is open. A large portion of information is openly available, another large portion is hidden behind login walls, but fairly easily accessible. Information is passed around between web apps through plugins, widgets, async apis, links, and many other formats. Information in the mobile world is locked up inside apps. There is a very high threshold for app download, and the majority of the apps on phones don’t get opened. Push notifications are used largely as a triggering mechanism rather than an unit of consumable information. SDKs are generally action-based instead of information-based. This makes the majority of mobile experiences inaccessible to users.

On the web, there are many ways we can discover new content, whether it’s through search, curation, social, or any other mechanism. This is because links on the web are open, and the “control” lowers percieved switching cost. On mobile, there are no good ways to discover new content. App search is notoriously bad, and apps are generally not created with broad discoverability in mind. Social platforms tend to keep people on the platforms, which causes the problem of “hit-and-leave” for content publishers. There is no equivalence of “just browsing the web” in the mobile app world, and hence, users lose the ability to casually discover new experiences.

The lack of accessibility and discoverability is further worsened by the lack of communication between apps. Due to OS restrictions, apps live in very controlled sandboxes. Even with the recent development in deeplinking and app plugins, we haven’t seen information passed between apps in a meaningful way except for a few very specific use cases. The “app constellation” model remains unattainable for most developers. There lacks a communication pipe so that apps are aware of other apps, and there lacks a mechanism for apps to define an “embedded experience” inside other apps.

We all know that mobile doesn’t live on a single device. We live in a multi-device world and the devices are in different environments. Environments are important because their refer contexts and the underlining expectations of users. Other than large companies with proprietary homegrown solutions, most apps are not aware of other environments, and have no easy way to communicate between environments. With the upcoming smart watches and internet of things, communication in a multi-device world is a huge opportunity. Cross device experiences like iMessage is and inspiration for thinking about a user as she is using a service.

In the app-centric world, experiences largely live in silos. The switching cost between apps is high, and the poor navigability of the OS makes information inaccessible. It’s quite ironic that the highly accessible hardware (you can take the phone out of your pocket at anytime) is coupled with an inaccessible software layer. Comparing to the ease of information flow in the desktop environment, smartphones don’t come close. We are handicapped by legacy technology layers and OS-layer restrictions to take full advantage of the internet infrstrcutured built up over the last 20 years. The rigid programming paradigms make development slower and more costly. The lack of access to low-level functionality limits the programmer’s ability to innovate. The existing legacy web makes re-designing for a small screen extremely difficult.

With so many problems in the mobile software layer, many companies (include Wildcard - the company I helped to start) are working on new solutions. Mobile cards, deeplinks, various SDKs for identity management, mobile payment are all solutions that give mobile apps new super powers. With the base layer established and many interesting use cases explored, here comes the age of mobile integration.