Before there were smartphones, there were phones with the first-ever web browsing capabilities. Before those, flip phones were the thing to have, partly for their “sleek” design and partly for the satisfying sound they created when rapidly opened and closed. (Many a flip phone was broken in pursuit of this sound. Many of those broken flip phones were mine). Before flip phones, there were bricks with buttons that boasted durability and, most importantly, Snake.
Aside from the speed of its development, the lifeline of the mobile phone has looked like that of most groundbreaking products: a steady, upward climb from nice-to-have to need-to-have, with each new product generation introducing a better, more desired, and finally critically needed feature set. This shift is aggressively sought after by every startup launching a new product or service and any company looking to make headlines.
Though we associate the “must-have” mentality with technology these days, it’s been a defining factor in purchasing decisions since products have existed. The fashion and toy industries have long used the art of deliberate trendsetting and ubiquity to influence buyers beyond the “want” and into the feeling of “need.” But these industries differ from tech in that they drive sales with the promise of social gain and satisfaction, and rarely convenience, safety, success, or any of the million assets new technology can offer.
Therein lies the difference between mobile and most other industries: the pure number of gains from buying have led consumers to treat smartphones as needs, not wants. It’s easy to discount a product that offers you two great things, but much harder to define something as just nice to have when it offers you a hundred different nice-to-have things. Quality is always crucial, but quantity is more meaningful than ever before too.
Mobile products have similarly moved into the need-to-have territory because of the breadth of what they offer. A mobile app can achieve what a front-end website (and before that a calendar, brochure, secretary…) used to, but it also introduces a whole slew of features people didn’t know they needed until they did. Mobile maps have, worrisomely, replaced my brain’s navigational skills, reminders have rendered my memory pretty useless, and Passbook has taken the place of the godforsaken printer.
Separately, features like these are nice, but as the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and when a product has many, many parts, the whole becomes a whole lot huger. The businesses that were first to adopt the front-end website became the movers and shakers in their industries, accessing and perfecting an edge their competitors had yet to realize. Mobile apps present the next opportunity to claim a nice-to-have advantage that will soon become a need-to-have driver of success.