Essays on Technology and Culture

How To Stand Out In a Crowded Market

I’ve written on here before about the futility of adding social features to apps, specifically calendar apps. Fact of the matter is, as I addressed in the previously referenced essay, adding social features is an easy way to differentiate your product in an increasingly crowded market space. We’re seeing this sort of thing a lot in what I will call, for lack of a better term, commodity applications. See, for example, the latest gushing and gnashing about Haze, which amazes everyone with its ability to display a small amount of information in a very simple way. I give it a month before the imitators flood the space, and we all get burned out. [1]

This is not to question the intentions of the people behind these apps. I’m sure the folks who made Tempo thought they were really on to something when they decided to integrate a calendar with Facebook and LinkedIn, and put it on the iPhone. What I’m saying is that to properly differentiate an application, you need to do something that won’t be so easily done by others. This is hard. This is mind-bogglingly, brain-shakingly, hypenated-adverbially hard. This is also why we don’t see it terribly much.

There are two classes of differentiating features: doing a simple thing incredibly well, and doing something truly new. For an example of the former, let’s look at the little ten-inch sheet of glass I’m typing this on. Apple’s iPad was not the first tablet, and the pundits won’t let you forget it. Microsoft had been pushing the idea of tablet computing for the better part of a decade before Apple revealed the iPhone, let alone the iPad. There had been touchscreen devices with grids of application icons before iOS ever happened. What Apple did, and what everyone’s been trying to catch up with, is taking something like touch computing and a “grid-of-icons” based UI, and making it a smooth, polished, and intuitive experience. Microsoft, on the other hand, insisted that a user should use a stylus as a mouse surrogate, rather than rethink the Windows UI.

But, let’s look again at Microsoft. Windows 8 is something new. Well, Metro is something new. Erm, Modern UI. Whatever the hell they’re calling it. It’s different, it’s pretty, and it’s a reinvention of the desktop that is distinctive and hasn’t really been done before. I don’t like it, but I’ve also not tried to live with it. Five minutes playing with a Surface RT demo unit alone does not a podcast guest spot make. [2] Point is, props do need to go to Microsoft for trying to do something new and unique. Some props also need to be taken away for not following through all the way, but the net number of props left is still a positive integer. Someone has the potential to take what Microsoft did, and run the rest of the way with it. Hopefully, it’ll be Microsoft, and it’ll hopefully be before Ballmer finishes piloting the ship into the ground. But, I digress.

The truly earth-shaking products, the ones that actually have a lasting impact, don’t just cram in whatever new, cool, shiny feature that’s the buzzword of the month, like “social.” They rethink the way someone actually uses something. It happens on an interaction level. As I mentioned with Fantastical, the brilliance of the app is in how a user puts data into it with natural language processing. The love people have for OmniFocus comes from, again, the myriad ways there are to put data into it, and to pull data out of it. A remarkable, ground-breaking product does something a person wanted to do, but does it easier, and better. That’s all there is to it, short of actually figuring out how. That’s a longer process, and one that doesn’t lend it self to making a quick buck on the App Store or being bought out by some big technology company before the venture funding runs out.

  1. A month, I figure, is enough time to code a basic weather app, apply “minimalist design” to it, and get it past the App Store approval process.  ↩

  2. Except when it does.  ↩