Smartphone and Tablet Apps: A marketing wasteland

Funnily enough, this post is prompted by a rather innocent thing – a fillet o’ fish burger from the well-recognized big M.

Fillet O'Fish Burger Box

Looks ordinary at first glance, but wait a minute – something’s different:

Track My Maccas

With this “pattern”, and an app, it purportedly is able to tell you about where the burger comes from. The “instructions” are given inside:

Track My Maccas Instructions

I think this is the epitome of the problem with phone and tablet apps – they’re more of a marketing opportunity than something with useful utility.

First of all, I guess I should clarify that I don’t currently possess my iOS devices (after lending them both to my brother who is overseas), so I can’t tell what the app does exactly, but their quote of “3D watery world waiting around your burger box” already tells me that this will be more of a toy rather than a factual thing. Add to this the code which is printed very poorly (blurry) and doesn’t consist of ordered squares (as in QR and data matrix), ordered lines (as in barcodes), or sets of regular triangles, or bullseye targets makes it unlikely that this is a genuine data code. I also find it logistically unlikely that the boxes are printed in such a way to match the stock of fish supplies and bread supplies etc.

So why the code in the first place? Well, without the code, you wouldn’t buy the burger. So putting on the code serves as a way to authenticate that you are a customer of theirs. It gives you a “reward” for your efforts, although, if you scan the picture above, it might just work.

But it sounds like a stupid app, so why have an app in the first place? It’s all a carefully orchestrated plan from my perspective. If they get you used to the idea of free Wi-Fi in their restaurants, then they could get you to return in the future. If they can get you to install their app, they may get access to your phone – depending on the app, this could hypothetically let them push special offers, ads, promotions and track your phone on their network even when the app is not running (if it is a service). When the app is running, then you are immersed in their world – a full-screen portal where the only escape is the home button/task switcher. When you’re running their app, they know they have your full attention, and they will do the most they can to engage you, and keep you launching their app where they have opportunities to advertise and promote themselves, while providing token functionality to make the app just slightly less than useless – so you don’t just uninstall it. They will probably also lure you in with future promises so to keep you from uninstalling it …

Of course, it’s not only big companies, and it’s not only one or two companies. Many people have seen the potential for smartphones and tablets to be a money raising platform and go to lengths to develop many many single purpose apps which do only one or several simple tasks and offer it free just so they can have you displaying their ads providing them with a continual revenue stream for doing nothing! Some apps are even more obnoxious, and will install web-shortcuts and produce pop-up notifications periodically to pester you to install other programs of theirs (or their affiliates) – as this makes them money.

This results in app stores littered with free apps that do the same thing – in fact, some of them perform so similarly and have the same bugs to the point that it just seems that there’s a “get rich quick DIY app” kit out there with sample apps, instructions to skin and launch onto the app store. It’s confusing, needlessly wasteful and annoying to have to try several apps before settling on one that works.

And then you have the problem of having a large wall of apps – not only does having many apps eat memory (especially those with services) and cause many update notifications, it also makes finding the right app in a hurry a problem! How many screens do you have to rifle through to find the calculator, the camera, the web-browser, an audio player, a video player? Hopefully not many – as you put the most useful apps “up front”. But what about the less used apps? It’s definitely a problem when you come back to Ikea in 6 months time and wonder where the catalogue app went!

Then there are the annoying authors who will write a new app for each and every event every single year – while the old app sits there useless, cluttering people’s phones and tablets. And other authors which try to rip off other people’s unregistered trademarks – while not illegal, it can confuse end users into installing apps which aren’t the ones which they intended. For example, if we had a popular app (hypothetically) called FerretPlayer, and someone comes along and makes a derivative of our logo, and calls theirs FerretPlayer Pro or FerretPlayer Plus, and sells it for free – this will easily trick users into installing apps which really weren’t their intention.

Annoyingly, quality multi-purpose apps are few and hard to come by, and are mostly expensive. In this regard, it’s easy to have more apps on a tablet and lose track of them than on a PC! I prefer several free, quality apps to many single purpose ones – the app that gets the most action is unsurprisingly the web browser. I guess this is where Chrome OS got it right – a good web browser means access to many many services with very little fuss, and craziness of finding and switching between apps.

Slowly, I think users are wisening up to the uselessness of single-purpose apps and not bothering to install them, but this won’t stop marketers and get-rich quick schemes from thinking that they need to develop a mobile app where they really don’t. Mobile application development is booming, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing especially for the free app. Ads which spout the size of the app-store and the number of apps available are just moot. I guess it’s a case of getting what you paid for … nothing.

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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