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Building the Next Big App: Experts Weigh In

How are shifting consumer behaviors, new digital channels, application standards, and open source trends influencing current approaches to customer-facing software development? That's a big, scary question, but the panel of experts assembled to answer that question during Actuate's iHub F-Type launch in San Jose recently weren't intimidated in the least.

In fact, customer strategist Esteban Kolsky, principal and founder of ThinkJar, took issue with the title of the panel -- "Building the Next Big App" -- arguing that the next big app could very well be small.

"Anyone here have the Starbucks app on their phones?" he asked the crowd. (Some hands went up.) "It's more than that I bet! My point is, this is a very small app that does only three things: it finds a new Starbucks, it lets you charge it, and it lets you see what your rewards are. It's not a big app at all, and that's what's very interesting going forward." The next big app, he said, is probably going to be a small, special purpose application.

Stephen O'Grady, principal analyst and co-founder of Redmonk and a truly developer-focused industry watcher, said it was clear to him that, whatever the next big app might be, its development will be driven by data. He pointed to ride-sharing service Uber, which relies on a mobile app that not only connects passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire, but also provides end-user data the company can mine to make better decisions about growing the business.

Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, who has watched more than a decade of open-source action from the front lines, observed that the small, narrowly focused apps Kolsky saw in our future would depend on the data O'Grady saw as a driver of development.

"I don't think [the next big apps] have to be data driven," he said. "But even the simplest of apps will generate data that can be utilized, monetized, and become the source of new and interesting business models, and even social models. That's where I think things are going."

Which is not to say that the data isn't a driver in this space, Milinkovich added. "It used to be that new product ideas were essentially based on conjecture," he said. "We were guessing that this might be an opportunity. Now there's much more hard data to base that guess on. There's much more data-driven innovation, rather than inspiration-driven innovation."

Loie Maxwell, chief marketing officer at Social Imprints and former vice president ofcCreative at Starbucks, suggested that the relationship between small apps and big data lies at the heart of the kinds of end-user experiences that will differentiate the next big app.  

"That data doesn't just sit somewhere," she said. "Or it shouldn't, because the data can drive continuous improvement, which can lead to better user experiences, better services, and possibly those new business opportunities you were talking about."

Kolsky pointed to two more essential links in this Next Big App chain: connectivity and analytics tools. "The data has existed forever," he said. "But now everything is connected and we have the tools to collect and process it. That's the critical aspect of this environment."

Moderator Allen Bonde, vice president of product marketing and innovation at Actuate, asked the panel what they thought about the notion that, when it comes to data, "fast" is the new "big." Kolsky liked the idea.

"The whole concept of big data stems from the fact that we can collect, process, store, and manipulate data hundreds of times faster than we ever could before," Kolsky said. "When people talk to me about big data, the first thing they ask is how to deal with it in real time."

"The truth is, an awful lot of the data that companies we deal with are looking at is not even remotely big data," O'Grady said. "We're not talking petabytes, but terabytes. In some cases the [smaller] data sets can give you huge insights."

How much is the consumerization of IT influencing the development of the Next Big App, Bonde asked the panel.

 "It's about the visualization of data," Maxwell. "It used to be that you needed to hire an analyst at hundreds of dollars an hour to analyze the data, break it down, and tell you what you needed to be doing. Now we're creating tools that allow individuals to create visualizations of data for their own business needs. There's a democratization there, with apps showing up [in the enterprise] that are much more user friendly in this way. That's certainly picking up on what the consumer population has to have in order to adopt a product. It's changing the designs of enterprise software."

To Bonde's question about the impact of open source on the Next Big App, O'Grady opined that OSS hasn't been much of a direct driver of good design or usability, but that it has driven bottom-up adoption, which has profoundly changed the way technologies are procured in the enterprise -- and almost as a side effect, improved design.

"Ten years ago, I could sell my business applications basically one person, the CIO, and what the product looked like wasn't all that important," he said. "But today it's a lot different. It's much more like selling iPhones. You don't sell iPhones to an executive who then rolls them out to the company. You sell an iPhone to each individual in the company. So things like design, usability, availability, installation, and ease of use matter."

Milinkovich pointed out that "big data" was one of the first major enterprise software trends to emerge first from the open source community, via the Apache Hadoop project, which spawned companies like Cloudera and Hortonworks. "It was bottom-up adoption, as developer realized what they could do with these tools, that made it happen," he said. "And it was definitely driven by open source."

Bonde wrapped up the presentation by asking for some advice from the panelists for developers and designers thinking about the next big app.

Milinkovich pointed to the "huge opportunities" emerging over the next decade from the Internet of Things and a world in which we will be increasingly surrounded by sensors gathering data. Application developers should be prepared to take advantage of the tools and technologies that support the analysis of that data for real-time decision making.

O'Grady advised developers to take advantage of technologies connect them with users to gain deeper insights into their applications. "You should consider the possibility that in many cases the best outcome of a question [from a user] is the next question," he said. "You're never going to be able to answer perfectly a given user's question. But each question presents you an opportunity to say, hey, that's something I didn't know, and to follow up with the next question and the next question after that. That's how you get the big insight."

"Among the tech startups I've worked with, the ones who invested in the user experience and made it something users could fall in love with are the ones who saw the greatest return the fastest," said Maxwell. "In too many situations I've seen, that's almost an afterthought."

"I wouldn't spend any time thinking or worrying about big data or any of that," Kolsky said. "I'd just say, invest your time developing something people actually need."

Posted by John K. Waters on July 28, 2014