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Knocking New York’s subway line for its approach to apps

March 10, 2011

As 2011 turned, so did the mobile world. Like a gyroscope inside your mobile device, the mobile marketing industry turned on its collective axis and was transported to a new reality: mobile applications are serious business, and not just another box to check on the marketing spreadsheet.

What prompted this statement was, of all things, an otherwise mundane subway ride that I took in New York’s Manhattan on the Broadway subway line.

A subway poster from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the 58-year-old organization that manages subways and buses throughout New York, boldly proclaimed that its mobile apps – newly ready for download – were “whiz kid certified.”

The incongruity of the language – does anyone, under the age of, say, 50, really understand what this phrase means anymore? – and the organization that was using it only made me sit up in my hard-plastic seat and look more closely. Yes, I did snap several pictures with my iPhone.

Upon further reflection, I realized that the MTA was trying to state that its apps were so good – so hip, so strong – that they passed the smell test of the so-called whiz kids. I thought that this was a turning point.

If the MTA – not the first organization any New Yorker or tourist would consider to be an arbiter of technical-savvy – was now firmly in the apps game, how many other hide-bound organizations would make similar claims that they were now grand-kid certified?

This question begs an inflection point.

Aptly handled?
With close to a half-million apps on the market, it is time to look more seriously at how these apps deliver a relationship for users, even if they are so-called utility apps.

The idea that an organization that millions of New Yorkers rely on for daily commuting would callously throw its apps over to whiz kids, instead of forging a relationship with a world-class team, is curious at best, and callow at worst.

Beyond the whiz-kid handling of MTA’s data, there is an even more egregious issue at stake here: the MTA actually gave the information to anyone – i.e. the whiz kids – who wanted to use their data to produce apps.

This not only means that it will be difficult to browse through all the available apps – as many will try to make a buck from a New York Subway app, resulting in a large number of apps containing the same information – to find the best one, it also means that the apps are not as good as they could be.

Is it important for the whiz kids to show which stations have elevators for disabled persons or families with strollers for instance?

How good could an MTA app actually be if MTA had chosen to do what is right, in this case, professionally produce an app that is worthy of the MTA, New York and the people who live here or visit the city.

Lack of attention to quality assurance is a critical issue in product development.

Giving away information for free is also a major issue. Companies are at risk of losing control of their brand message due to a lack of attention to mobile app development.

Creating a compelling mobile app is not easy work, and it should not be seen as easy.

If companies do not care what their apps look like or how their data is handled, then – yes – any 16-year-old whiz kid could do this work.

Playing ball
I am reminded of the early days of the Web, when certain major brands stumbled in the development of their virtual presences.

For New York subway riders who take the 7 train to Flushing, your dear New York Mets baseball team was punked by a teenager who built the first Mets Web site back in 1996. The team adopted it as its own until it finally came up with an official site.

Brands are in an analogous situation today with mobile app development.

Those brands that are not paying attention to the assurances, longevity and overall credibility of their app developers will only yield predictable results: poorly conceived apps that will tarnish the brand’s image. And no amount of whiz kids in the garage can pull that back from the fire.

Even if a brand is launching its first foray into app development, it needs to craft a strategy with a narrative that builds over time.

Even the flashiest of apps has to tell a story.

Mobile data usage is exploding chiefly because people are consuming more content through the mobile Web, and apps will own a larger share of this behavioral trend.

Fredrik Oscarson is CEO and executive creative director of Mobiento USA, New York. Reach him at

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