Not a day goes by without a brand launching an app. What started in the midnoughties as simple Java brochures - that looked so much nicer than a WAP page - changed overnight with the iPhone and, crucially, the App Store. Here we had a place where cool apps could be consumed and found democratically, ostensibly without the need for media promotion.
Apps became part of social currency. Anyone with an iPhone or Android (Google) phone had to prove their worth with the apps they carried as badges of discovery, statements of cool, symbols of connection with the zeitgeist.
But the majority of apps we've seen in the past three years are largely what we call "flat". They are simple, quick hit gimmicks, which use a core function of the phone. A few stand out, of course - think of the stir that iPint caused, or more recently, Publicis' iHobo app for the charity Depaul UK.
But too often they have been just sizzle; now consumers want the sausage. We're now at the beginning of the second phase of app evolution, what I'm calling the phase of "round" apps.
Round apps present agencies and brands with a way to get closer than ever to their consumers. They enable people's lives and, in return, are carried as more than brand trophies by their fans.
You let round apps into your inner social life - they can connect with functions and even people within your social network, because you allow them to. They are gateways for brands to get closer not only to you, but also to your friends.
Round apps work "around" media. They don't necessarily need a big media push to get started. Instead, they rely on being spread across social networks by key influencers and MIPs (mates in pubs).
Round apps will make brands a bit like music companies of the past. Brands become a "hits business", apps become the hit singles, usurping the ad campaign that everyone talks about. Apps will be the new currency of the watercooler. We might even see app-stars, people who achieve great wealth and fame through the apps they've created that reach number one on the App Store chart.
Brands can reinvent themselves with round apps. We've already seen Nike become an authority on urban listings with its True City iPhone app. What's stopping Barclaycard becoming my travel companion, guiding me through all the tricky stages of a foreign business trip? You get the idea. Round apps allow brands new ways to connect with people and deliver new services and value. We could even see the staid and prosaic bring a little entertainment and fun into the world.
Mobile companies such as Vodafone and Nokia have also adapted to become producers as well as distributors of apps. They have their own app stores, where they facilitate entertainment and utility for their customers.
Brands need to start thinking how they can connect with consumers in a "round" way. How they deliver something of such value that people will use and share. Consumers can even allow brands to benefit from the social multiplier effect, where if I post my brand app usage on Facebook, on average 150 people will be exposed to it.
The interaction and content of the app must reflect the standing of the brand, so there is no point just "testing". You need to launch with real benefits and super-slick interfaces. Brands can have multiple apps (Nike has 12 live on the App Store) doing different jobs.
Agencies should consider apps as a new marketing channel in its own right. Think like Google and evolve your client app, just as Google evolves all its products with upgrades and new versions that have enhanced functionality and added benefit.
Finally, you now have the most precious research and development lab ever: your consumers, if you enable them, will use your apps, rate what they like (and what they don't) and tell you where the improvements are needed. This type of crowdsourcing has already been used by innovators such as Dell. It's ripe for other brand types too.
- Jon Carney is the chief executive of Marvellous.
THE BEST 'ROUND' APPS
Agency: Great Works
As well being a thing of beauty, the app helps you find drinks to support your mood, the time of day, the weather, by bar type, by background music type, or even by your favourite spirit. And it stores your history of previous concoctions. It's social too - see what users of the app around the globe are making right now, and share your favourites.
Killer fact: The app was downloaded 43,000 times in its first two weeks in the iTunes store and is still the number-one app in Sweden.
Adidas Marathon Tracker
The most applauded and awarded app so far. The winner of a Cannes Lion, Media Week Grand Prix and a Webby, the Marathon Tracker allows friends and family to track loved ones in the London Marathon, and follow them around the course. They are also able to post messages on huge digital displays, just as their runner approaches.
Killer fact: More than 500,000 people downloaded the app ahead of this year's race, and its success has prompted Adidas to look into extending the campaign so that it also works with the New York Marathon too.
Jamie Oliver 20-Minute Meals
Tapping into the need for quick and simple good food, this app combines a clever shopping list function with video demos of Oliver in action. Going for gold, it would link selected recipes with social media tools and your friends. Not sure why supermarkets haven't launched one of these.
Killer fact: The first iPhone app featuring the popular TV chef, the content includes almost an hour-and-ahalf of video footage that sees Oliver giving tips and pointers on a variety of kitchen skills.
Momento Dear Diary
You can put together your most profound thoughts, and then easily broadcast them across the social web. Called a social notebook, it combines a digital diary with a writing app and image/video store. I surmise this kind of thing will be the next development in micro-blogging.
Killer fact: As well as allowing users to keep a diary while on the go, it now also imports online activity so that users can see a history of their Facebook status updates, Tweets, Flickr photos and Last.fm loved tracks all in one place.
Nike True City
Proving apps can extend brands into new areas, True City combines cool-hunter recommendations on new events, images and maps with your location to find Nike-esque spots in cities such as London and Amsterdam. It also publishes direct to your social networks.
Killer fact: In the latest version of the app, Nike turns users into contributors, encouraging them to add their own finds, geo-tagged, throughout a city. The best contributions will be added to the Nike database.