Sometimes one forgets that third party mobile apps basically didn't exist on any mass scale until Apple opened up the iPhone to apps in 2008, one year after the phone's introduction. Until then, the only way new apps appeared on your iPhone was when Apple issued an OS update and included something new.
In many ways the evolution of the mobile app in business reminds me very much of the evolution of the web. At first only a few companies built their own websites, and often companies partnered with media companies to be included in their offerings.
That was the premise behind much of the sales pitch from VerticalNet: the B2B web pioneer, and flame out, originally pitched mini sites to customers who could showcase their products on a VerticalNet industry website. The seemed to make sense for a while – what an easy way for a company to get some sort of web presence – but the idea made less sense when companies realized that they really needed to build their own websites, not rely on some company they had never heard of.
Today Southwest Airlines issued an update to its existing iPhone app that adds in many familiar features available to web users: early check-in, flight status notifications, etc. It is a natural evolution for the app, one that travelers will certainly appreciate. Some of these features are merely minor variations on existing services. For instance, airlines have allowed their customers to register for notifications of flight delays for a while now. Typically, once you have signed up for the service, you get a phone call whenever you flight has been delayed. Getting a notification on your iPhone is the same concept, but possibly more convenient.
But it is important to remember that it took a decade for companies to start to use their websites in this way, the evolution of their mobile apps is happening much faster.
That brings me to media apps: they seem to be evolving at a much slower pace. The reason for this, I believe, is two-fold: first, at many companies, the mobile and tablet initiatives are being managed by the editorial departments, leaving out sales and other departments from the process; and second, the outsourcing of apps means that their creation and updating are handled as projects – once completed the relationship is all but over until a new project is initiated.
For a newspaper or magazine, most publishers or editors have seen the purpose of a mobile app as furthering the reach of the editorial content. That's nice, but it is very limiting. Few newspapers, for instance, have their own classified advertising apps, or have created retail shopping apps.
In those cases where a publication has created secondary apps, such as Food & Wine's Eat and Drink, or DEPARTURES Ultimate City Guides, both from American Express Publishing, the products are still really just extensions of the editorial content.
The second thing that holds back mobile app evolution for media companies is the way they have looked at anything digital for the past decade. Web design is often outsourced so that any minor changes become a major headache. Imagine if every time an editor wanted a new looking editorial page for their magazine they had to call in a company and initiate a new contract. That is they way many magazine websites are handled today. This model has been adopted for mobile and tablet publishing, as well.