I have the privilege and pleasure of helping out at the local youth group. On Monday we had our Christmas party. I took some photos. And put them onto Facebook – inevitably the online social hub of the group. I also posted them on Flickr. I received a note asking why I’d duplicated the effort. Surely Facebook is enough?
It seems a fair point. What can’t you do on Facebook now? Photos, videos, email, games, chat…? Isn’t the technological singularity of the platform all persuasive? David Kirkpatrick believes that Facebook will become ubiquitous: “In five years there won’t be a distinction between being on and off Facebook” he says in his book, The Facebook Effect. But the question is, can it be as good as a dedicated resource?
We’re witnessing an interesting technological phenomena. Actually for the second time. Initially, ease of use actually degrades the quality. Look at the the MP3/ ipod revolution – the technical quality of music recording dropped significantly. We sacrificed fidelity for convenience. And now, we’ve reached the point where Generation Y apparently prefer the tinny low resolution sound of highly compressed audio. The advances offered by CDs have gone (ignoring for a moment, the purists’ argument about the warmth of vinyl).
So it is with Facebook. Yes, it offers mail but it’s not as good or as flexible as Outlook; chat isn’t as good as IM; viewing photos isn’t as good as Flickr. Of course it might just be a question of time – Facebook may buy or develop software that is comparable to specialised applications, or as we’ve seen with MP3s, we may simply accept the restrictions as a reasonable price for convergence.
However, there is a new technical ‘kid on the block’ that might spoil Facebook’s party – apps. The transformation that Apple’s App Store and its mimics has offered to software development is astonishing. It is a twenty-first century cottage industry with global distribution. And it is an industry dedicated to highly tailored, specialised tasks – finding local restaurants, free car parking spaces, to do lists. It offers software produced elegantly to address a single challenge. And it is fantastically successful both for producers and consumers. The appeal of bespoke apps is their fitness for purpose: they are not bloated with unnecessary functionality – they focus on doing one thing well. If I want to upload a photo, I don’t want to start up a whole image processing package. It’s partly the immediacy of need associated with mobile computing – “I need something specific. Now.”
In January, Apple opens its App Store for computer software. I wonder if it will prove as successful as it’s iPhone/iPod/iPad brethren? Or whether the specialists be swallowed by the all-consuming Jack of All Trades?