Thought: mobile apps are just hors d’oeuvres

horsdoeuvres

Yesterday morning, while I was making curtados in the kitchen, I was also trying to listen to the radio. The station was WNYC, New York’s main public radio station. The program at the time was This American Life. Since the espresso machine is noisy when extracting coffee or steaming milk, I kept looking for the pause button on the radio—out of habit. That’s because pausing is a feature present on the radio and podcasting apps on my phone and other mobile devices scattered around the house, all of which I tend to use for radio listening more than I use an actual radio.

So I decided to open TuneIn on my phone. TuneIn has been around for almost as long as we’ve had iPhones and Androids. It started as a way to play radio stations from all over the world, but has since broadened into “100,000+ live radio stations, plus on-demand content like podcasts & shows.” These are listed on its home screen in what I gather is something between a reverse chronological order list of stations I’ve listened to in the past, and the app’s best (yet wrong) guess of what I might want, or what that they want to promote… or I dunno. It’s hard to tell.

In other words, the app is now something of a pain, because if you want to listen to a radio station that’s not on its home page list, your easiest choice is to look it up, which takes time. Even if you “favorite” it, the best-guesswork (or whatever it is) system on the Home page buries what you want down the list somewhere among on-demand shows and podcasts (I’m guessing that’s what it is), none of which I have listened to once through the app.

Anyway, I found WNYC after awhile, and continued listening on the phone’s little speaker, hitting pause with my wet fingers while going through cutado-making routines.

While I was doing that, and thinking about how TuneIn is still the best of its breed (of tunes-every-station apps), and how all apps are works-in-progress, changing countless times over their life spans—and nearly all seem to be trying to do too much—this metaphor came to mind:

Mobile devices are just hors d’oeuvre trays, and apps are just hors d’oeuvres. Appetizers, not dinner. And nobody knows how to make dinner yet. Or even a dining room table.

So the kitchen just keeps serving up variations on the same old things. With radio it’s a mix of live stations, shows on their own, “on demand” shows or segments, podcasts and appeals to subscribe to a premium service. Weather, transit, fitness, news, photography, social… most of them evolve along similar broadening paths, trying along the way to lock you into their system.

The competition is good to have, and lots of good things happen on the platforms (or we wouldn’t use them so much), but the whole mess is also getting stale. Walled-garden platforms and apps from garden-run stores are now the box nobody seems to be thinking outside of.

We need something else for dinner. We also need a table to set it on, and utensils to eat it with. And none of those, I sense, are more than barely implicit in the hors d’oeuvres we’re chowing down now, or the trays they come on.

Bonus link.

2 comments

  1. Mihai Pintilie’s avatar

    I’m still using an old fashioned radio. Also the in-car radio. Don’t use to listen to the radio on the smartphone. Don’t know how to explain it, maybe I’m the old-fashioned guy.

  2. Alan Ralph’s avatar

    We still have a couple of DAB/FM radios around the house here. Unfortunately, every so often the signal will go (on DAB) or be filled with static (on FM). It used to be due to local taxi companies’ (ab)use of the frequency bands, but that has been curbed severely now so I’m suspecting the reliability or power of the transmitters is the issue.

    I used to have an Internet radio (made by Roberts), which worked but was very fiddly to set up and use—the form seriously hampered the function, in that case.

    I now use TuneIn on my iPad for most of my personal radio listening. It doubles up nicely as a clock-radio at night, provided I turn the brightness right now and remember to plug it in to charge if it’s below 50%. My biggest bugbear with it is that the controls are too small, probably because of design decisions made to allow the same app to work on both phones and tablets. Not good for my big fingers.

    Hmm, if mobile apps are hors d’oeuvres, I wonder what traditional desktop applications like Word or Photoshop would be, to carry forward the food analogy? Perhaps a medieval banquet? Extravagent, overloaded, with dishes on the table that seem decidedly odd to modern eyes, and other dishes that are probably best thrown under the table for the dogs to gnaw on?

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