The world’s most popular mobile app doesn’t run on a smartphone

Doug Bannister, Founder & CTO
February 22, 2016
traffic light above darkened city street

Quick – what mobile app do people worldwide use more frequently than any other?  Facebook?  YouTube?  Google?  Not even close.  Most people use this app or system a couple dozen times every day without even thinking about it.  It’s real-time, interactive, sensor and big data driven with an extremely friendly user interface so simple even children use it.  In an age of rapidly increasing complexity it’s a great example of a pervasive system that delivers value very simply with no extraneous bells and whistles.

I bet you’re wondering what it is – the system I’m referring to is the traditional 3 color traffic light signal. 

Omnivex Corporation

You may argue that “app” is a bit of a misnomer when discussing traffic lights and a mobile app historically has been defined as a piece of software designed to run on mobile devices such as phones and tablets.  However, if you think outside the box for a moment, a traffic light is powered by software and is utilized by individuals when they are mobile.  So let’s pursue this unconventional angle and see where it takes us.

One of the first points that hits home is the fact that the term “mobility” as I’m using it refers to the mobility of the person, not the device.  I am not the first to come up with this concept, but I find it very compelling.  It caused me to rethink many assumptions when I first considered it.  After all, isn’t the point of technology to help people in their lives and do it in the most effective way possible?  Limiting the scope of a solution to a particular device type eliminates other, possibly better, options.  One of the traps that engineers, myself included, often find ourselves in is creating technology for technology’s sake and we often need to catch ourselves and redirect our creativity at solving the real problem in the best way.  By focusing on the mobility of the individual and designing technology that delivers benefits to people where and how it makes the most sense to them it really opens up some interesting possibilities.

Imagine for a moment implementing the traffic light network as a smartphone app.  You are in your car approaching an intersection and in wondering whether it is safe to proceed you pull out your phone, turn it on, enter your passcode, and launch the traffic signal app to determine what to do.  Completely impractical, never mind the fact that it’s illegal to use a phone while you drive in many jurisdictions.  When you view this scenario considering the mobility of the individual the best way to deliver the information to them isn’t on a mobile device; rather it is on a simple traffic light that they can see clearly from their car.  And we don’t need full color 4K hi-def screens to get the job done.  Three pixels will do just fine.

We constantly hear the mantra to “think outside the box” but actually doing it can be difficult at times.  Constantly looking for new perspectives such as this view on mobility can allow us to alter our assumptions and change a lot of what we think and do every day.