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Switched On: When apps meet traps


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

They've gone by many names -- "programs," "executables" and "applications" -- and the development of technologies such as HTML5 calls their nature into question. But the explosion of apps that have set the mobile device market alight over the past several years have been around for almost as long as digital computing has. Disagree with that statement whilst chatting with those who took early programming classes, and you may be staring down a punch card to the face.

In terms of consumer technology, though, apps have migrated from PCs to video game consoles (where they've been long burnt into ROMs) to smartphones and tablets, and now -- perhaps -- back to televisions proper. One thing we've learned over the course of that history is that companies will rarely refuse an opportunity to turn a successful "purpose-built device" into an app platform given enough marketplace success.

Few metamorphoses illustrate that as well as the iPod, which Apple first positioned as laser-focused on music, only to see it become a jack-of-all-media before taking on nearly every app an iPhone can handle as the iPod touch. Other iPod models, though, remain primarily music players. Similarly, the Nook Color has embarked on the app path whereas its grayscale sibling and competition have remained largely task-specific. But two recent devices provide more contrasting perspectives on the challenges of launching an app marketplace:

The Livescribe smartpens: the original Pulse and its follow-on, the Echo -- began as devices that could digitally record text and scribbles as they were written onto paper. Livescribe's first "app" was note-taking with a killer twist. Its pen could play back a point in a recording by tapping on the notes that accompanied it, something that some iPad apps and the HTC Flyer with its stylus are now aping. Livescribe followed up by bottling this feature into a new kind of media called pencasts -- narrations that progress through a drawing that allow someone to explain a process or tell a story.

Livescribe then launched an SDK, hoping to allow developers to leverage the unique mix of processing power, display, and sensors packed tightly into its writing instrument. The Livescribe store lists 114 apps, including Wikipedia, a port of Zork, the seminal work of interactive fiction, and Human Sound Effects, the nature of which shall be left to the collective imagination.

But just a few months after launching its store, Livescribe scrapped the idea of native development. Instead, it turned toward the cloud and decided to focus instead on building connections to popular Web services such as Facebook, Evernote, and Google Docs, each of which are available as smartphone apps as well. Perhaps Livescribe saw greater ease in tying into other well-developed APIs or value in leveraging the power of more powerful devices such as smartphones instead of its own constrained device. Either way, the idea of a pen with native apps has run dry.

While both are now available for less than $100, the Roku Player hardware could hardly be more different than the smartpen. Rather than have its own miniature OLED display, the Roku connects to a big TV and has its own integrated home network connectivity. Like the Livescribe pen, though, the Roku Player started with one "app." That was the playing back of network video, starting with Netflix and now followed by a long tail of niche content.

However, as Livescribe once did, Roku is now branching out to encourage native development. The Roku 2 XS trades in a simple infrared remote control for one that is more like the Wii motion-controller. With it, the company is seeking to attract many of the game developers who have had success with smartphone games to the big screen. Roku's proof of concept is Angry Birds, which is now available just about every platform except for those used by political parties.

The move into games is a natural one for Roku, which has served to help TVs made before the era of integrated WiFi and connected Blu-ray players access a host of web video options. Its update mirrors the migration we are seeing from simple "connected TVs" to "smart TVs." Indeed, it has long been speculated that Apple might make a similar move with its Roku competitor Apple TV. But, as Switched On noted back in May, there are obstacles that stand in the way of the development of smart TV, and in terms of delivering smartphone games to the Roku device, developers may have to work their way around assumptions like that of a multitouch display.

With a large selection of broadband video channels, Roku had adopted a kind of "app store" model even before it moved from video feed to video game. But with the inherent challenges of TV app development and a messy TV platform landscape, the company is making a bet. Its low prices and simple grid interface will seek to convince its Netflixters to engage even as they increasingly have the option of app stores built into their televisions. Roku's latest moves rekindle the question of what devices are good candidates to evolve into platforms for apps versus ones that are destined to lapse.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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