It’s an App App App App World

With Apple revealing that the second generation of its popular tablet computer– aka the iPad2 — will be available for purchase next week, it’s a good time to think about mobile devices in general: how they fit into our lives now, and how they may ultimately change our lives in the future.

Of course, it’s impossible to predict exactly what the future of mobile computing will look like, but it’s already pretty clear that Apple has laid the foundation for how that future will evolve.

For years, we’ve been hearing about the possibility of someday being able to control everything in our personal environment — from our car stereos and navigation systems to our household appliances — via remote control.

The emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web lent credence to these scenarios by providing a natural conduit for transporting the data conveying our commands to all the gadgets we want to control. The next step is developing software that will operate each of our personal appliances — and that’s where Apple’s influence will be felt for some time to come.

Android-basedSoftware Drives the Mobile Industry

It’s no secret that Apple’s mobile devices — the iPad, iPhone and iPods –are wildly popular with consumers. What may not be as obvious is this: The software applications that run on those devices actually fuel their popularity.

What good is an iPod without iTunes, or an iPad without e-reading capability? Those are core applications that Apple developed for those devices, but what really keeps users tied to them are the 350,000 other applications that independent software developers have built.

These applications let users do everything from playing mindless games to managing their personal finances. They also generate significant revenue both for Apple and the independent software developers.

This model has proven so successful that Google adopted it to support its Android mobile operating system, and guess what? Android-based smartphones are now outselling the iPhone, and a host of Android-based tablets are hitting the market — poised to take on the iPad — this year.

New Types of Mobile Apps

Because this model presents true win-win possibilities for both hardware and software developers, it is likely to be the way the mobile computing landscape evolves for the foreseeable future. Under this model, hardware suppliers can focus on building devices with advanced sensing and monitoring capabilities, while software developers work on applications that make those capabilities more useful for consumers.

This possibility is one reason Forrester predicted companies will realize US$38 billion in revenue from consumers buying and downloading mobile apps by 2015. As spending rises to this level, we’ll see new types of mobile apps emerge — starting with cloud-based services that allow users to store information online, and retrieve and manage it via mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.

Ultimately, the equivalent of mobile devices embedded in the electronic gear in our cars and household appliances will become ubiquitous, with those devices connected to what Forrester has dubbed “the App Internet.”

That day — if it ever arrives — is a ways off. We are, however, already seeing the mobile-enabled cloud-based services. Social networking via smartphones could be considered one such application, but this trend of accessing the cloud via mobile devices also is taking hold in more serious venues, such as the business world and the healthcare field.

Mobile Healthcare Solutions

In the business arena, Formotus is marketing an application that allows businesses to create custom forms for collecting data from their employees. The employees access the forms and enter data via smartphones, and the data goes into a database that company management can mine to get answers to key business questions.

Even more exciting things are being done in healthcare. More than 17,000 smartphone applications are currently being used, according to research2guidance, a firm that tracks mobile application trends.

One of those 17,000 mobile healthcare apps is a cloud-based service called MyGlucoHealth, developed by Entra Health Systems. The service allows users to send their current blood glucose reading to a website that houses secure portals with health readings of all patients who subscribe to the service.

Patients also can log into their individual portals via smartphones and get health-related information, including suggestions on what to eat at a given moment, based on their current blood glucose reading. A patient’s doctor also can be given access to the portal to stay abreast of the patient’s treatment needs.

The Cost of Convenience

Apps of this nature no doubt provide something of value, but they won’t come without a cost. As mobile apps proliferate, the most noticeable cost for most consumers will be higher prices for mobile service.

Verizon and AT&T — not coincidentally the two providers that offer service for the iPhone and iPad — already are phasing out their unlimited data plans. It won’t be long before other carriers do the same, and their primary argument for doing so will be the need to manage the growing volumes of data traveling across their networks.

The second cost associated with doing more on mobile networks will be the greater potential for loss of privacy.

The companies offering cloud-based mobile services — if they hope to stay in business — are likely to take the responsibility of protecting customer data seriously. Still, it’s going to be up to users to understand that if they want the convenience of managing their lives through mobile devices, they are going to have to start treating those devices like personal vaults — and take precautions to secure them or risk having their personal information compromised.

However the mobile landscape evolves, history someday will record that this industry really started to take off when Apple created the App Store.

E-Commerce Times columnist Sidney Hill has been writing about business and technology trends for more than two decades. In addition to his work as a freelance journalist, he operates an independent marketing communications consulting firm. You can connect with Hill through his website.

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