Do you remember how hard digital photography used to be? I do. When my first son was born, I was still shooting film, scanning things in and manually creating web pages to show off a few choice pictures. By the time my second son was walking I had my first good digital camera. Things were better, but I still had to drag pictures onto a hard drive, bring them into Photoshop, painstakingly process them and then upload to Flickr. And then, seemingly overnight, we took a leap. Phones got good cameras. Photo processing right on the camera got dead simple. And Instagram happened. We rarely think about it, but: digital photography went from hard and expensive to cheap and ubiquitous in a very short period of time.
I want to make the same thing happen with mobile apps. Today: making a mobile app — or a complex interactive web page — is slow, hard and only for the brave and talented few. I want to make making a mobile app as easy as posting to Instagram.
At Mozilla, we’ve been talking about this for while now. At Mobile World Congress 2013 we floated the idea of making easy to make apps. And we’ve been prototyping a tool for making mobile apps in a desktop browser since last fall. We’ve built some momentum, but we have yet to solve two key problems: crafting a vision of app making that’s valuable to everyday people and making app making easy on a phone.
We came one step closer to solving these problems last week win London. In partnership with the GSMA, we organized a design workshop that asked: What if anyone could make a mobile app? What would this unlock for people? And, more interestingly, what kind of opportunity and imagination would is create in places where large numbers (billions) of people are coming online for the first time using affordable smartphones? These are the right questions to be asking if we want to create an Instagram Effect for apps.
The London design workshop created some interesting case studies of why and how people would create and remix their own apps on their phones. A DJ in Rio who wanted to gain fans and distribute her music. A dabbawalla in Mumbai who wants to grow and manage the list of customers he delivers food to. A teacher in Durban who wants to use her Google doc full on student records to recruit parents to combat truancy. All of these case studies pointed to problems that non-technical people could more easily solve for themselves if they could easily make their own mobile apps.
Over the next few months, Mozilla will start building on-device authoring for mobile phones and interactive web pages. The case studies we developed in London — and others we’ll be pulling together over the coming weeks — will go a long way towards helping us figure out what features and app templates to build first. As we get to some first prototypes, we’re going get the Mozilla community around the world to test out our thinking via Maker Parties and other events.
At the same time, we’re going to be working on a broader piece of research on the role of locally generated content in creating opportunity for people in places whee smartphones are just starting to take at off. At the London workshop, we dug into this question with people from organizations like Equity Bank, Telefonica, USAID, EcoNet Wireless, Caribou Digital, Orange, Dalberg, Vodaphone. Working with GSMA, we plan to research this local content question and field test easy app making with partners like these over next six months. I’ll post more soon about this partnership.