Mobile First

It’s been an interesting few weeks in technology. We’ve seen a couple of events that we might characterise as Black Swans – but both reinforcing the fact that the world has changed.

In the first, we saw the incredible rise of a simple but notoriously difficult game called Flappy Bird. The one-man development team soon got sick of the attention and barrage of criticism and removed the game from the App Store (despite the $50k in revenue a day it was bringing in).

Part of what makes the Flappy Bird story so interesting is that its success is a complete surprise. The role of the App Store and its still nascent discovery methods (that no-one yet controls) is a key variable in this – as is the incredibly low friction involved in gaining scalable distribution. Lowering the barriers to entry and a scalable, worldwide distribution improves the asymmetry of the payoff function significantly. Flappy Bird is effectively a black swan with thick lips, brought to you not by Silicon Valley or the cool kids in Europe – but by a single developer in Vietnam. It is the distribution method and reduced friction that changes everything.

As if to drive the point home, this week we’ve seen the biggest acquisition of a VC-backed startup, with Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 billion. The transaction is structured more like a merger though: Jan Koum, WhatsApp founder gets a seat on the board of Facebook plus 8% ownership of Facebook stock – an amazing rags to riches story. In June last year, WhatsApp processed an incredible 27 billion messages – effectively doing to SMS what Skype did to international phone calls (and what SMS itself did to voice calls). Few would have predicted the extreme value that these ideas ultimately generated.  Of course, this is all terribly obvious in hindsight, right?

What both of these stories underline is that the puck has already moved. If you’re a software startup today and the product you’re working on isn’t designed for mobile first, you may want to cut your losses and refocus on mobile. Arguably, even Enterprise software should be thinking mobile first now. Facebook themselves quickly learnt an important lesson here. They attempted to stick to their HTML5 roots, before eventually relenting and building native apps for mobile, unbundling the Facebook experience in the process.

There is a new wave of computing in progress, and your customers and even internal users will be increasingly using a mobile device to carry out more and more of what they do. Facebook may well be the last “web first” giant we see for some time. The future is probably going to look more like 32 engineers conquering the connected world with a simple mobile-first app – one that is totally focused on performing the job it’s designed to do extremely well. Mobile is eating the world faster than any technology before it. The landscape is shifting, so we are likely to see more of these extreme opportunities appearing. Startups and companies who don’t get this will struggle. Those who do understand this can take steps to tilt the playing field more in their favour.

I’m sure there are plenty of arguments for not focusing on mobile first, I just haven’t heard a good one yet. Feel free to enlighten me in the comments below!

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