Photo via opusbei via Flickr CC
Nearly every day, we get news of a new cell phone app that will help us shop for eco-friendly this or that, figure our public transit route for us, help us find recycling outlets, or control the thermostat in our home. There are hundreds of "green" apps, all claiming to make our lives more eco-friendly if we use them. So, are people using them and are they making anyone's life greener? We wanted to check the status of the mobile phone app industry and so asked an expert, Ron Williams, President of 3rdwhale, a green app developer. He fills us in on the efficacy of apps, and their future on our phones.Green apps for phones are a popular thing right now, especially when it comes to shopping. What are the drivers you see making green apps - from carbon footprint tracking to home energy monitoring - such a big deal?
With green media voices leading and the mainstream media following along, coverage of green issues has really started to have an impact. People are better informed and an increasing number are motivated to do something to make a difference. But human nature being what it is, most people still need options made easy and convenient for them to act consistently day after day. And the best green apps can be pretty clever tools in that regard.
A mobile app is not just a mini web site. When you add the location element into the mix, handheld computing has the potential of being far more compelling for the user. You are delivering information to the right person, at the right time, at the right place. Those small but really consequential everyday decisions are made when you are in motion, and mobile phones are always along for the ride.
What results are you seeing in the green apps sphere? Are people really using them, and are they making a difference in helping people green their lifestyles?
There are over 65,000 apps in iTunes App store, expected to reach 100,000 by the end of this year. Downloads recently passed the 1.5 billion mark. Despite all the hype, the mobile space in North America is in its infancy. There was a story in the BBC recently quoting an industry leader saying that mobile apps will be bigger than the internet, peaking at 10 million apps by 2020.
There have not been very many great green apps released by anyone yet. The iTunes App Store is a big part of the reason--it does not do a good job of encouraging their millions of visitors to look beyond the small number of apps featured on their homepage. For the green app space, a simple step such as creating a "Sustainability" category would be a major help in supporting the development of more apps that want to do something good in the world. And I think consumers would appreciate it as well.
Until Apple changes the system and reorganizes the store, the best selling and most popular apps will continue to be games and gag apps that are often trivial in nature. There is a reason iFart was the #1 app on iTunes.
What are the most useful types of apps that people can download for going green? Which are apps that will be used months after being downloaded?
The most useful apps are those that really make it easier and more convenient for people to live more lightly on the planet. I think the apps that are most likely to be used for a long time are those that have a comprehensive resource like Good Guide (70,000 product ratings of food, personal care and household goods) or our 3rdWhale Mobile app (65,000 green businesses and resources across 100's of cities).
I also think apps that do one thing really well that is important to users will be long term winners. It will come down to how well these apps are built out over time--how effectively they employ the GPS function of smart phones to tie information delivery to location and how well they succeed in establishing a thriving social media component that nurtures community.
Everything is all about iPhone apps, with Android and Blackberry development lagging far behind. Will we see a change in that among developers so more people can access great green apps?
First mover does matter and Apple is making the most of it. They will be the leader for a long time. Developers will continue to be drawn to the operating system with the largest marketplace for their apps.
However, I see Google's Android as an enormously significant development--it is an open source operating system and handset independent. In 2009 there may be as many as twenty new handsets from various manufactures introduced into the market, all running Android. Apple is limited to the iPhone and Touch, with a "Netbook" of some sort reportedly in the planning stage. Android will see dramatic growth in the next twelve months, and over the next several years it could present a serious challenge to Apple.
Research in Motion is undoubtedly playing catch up with their new Blackberry App World, however they have a very large user base among businesses and that market will probably present some excellent opportunities for developers.
This month 3rdWhale will launch our own LBS mobile app on both Android and Blackberry Storm.
Where do you see the mobile apps sphere headed? Will we be running our entire lives from a cell phone soon?
Let me put it this way: every biological system on the face of the earth is collapsing. We do not have a lot of time to move the needle. We founded 3rdWhale because we think that the mobile platform can be a powerful tool in helping to build the green economy and galvanize collective action. We want to assist the real change agents in society--triple bottom line companies and NGO's committed to sustainability and social justice, in becoming early adopters of this new technology that holds so much potential to do good.
There is an astonishing thing taking place that gives me hope. It is estimated that by the end of 2009 there will be 4.5 billion mobile phones in use around the world. In the history of humankind, this has never happened before--two-thirds of the world population is becoming connected to one another. There is a great NGO in New York, MobileActive.org, that is made up of organizations and individuals working to develop the mobile space for social good. I hope they are an indication of where the mobile space is headed.