The End of Mobile Apps (as we know them)

People use apps because of benefits — speed and UX — that won’t last in an age of bots and “progressive apps”

I hate mobile apps. There, I said it.

So much work to get something so small. You hear about one that sounds useful, search for it in a virtual store, start downloading, realize you have no space, delete old photos, try again, still no space, delete another app, and try one last time. If you make it this far, then maybe you’ll use the app once. But 4 times out of 5, you’ll delete the app within a week. Research firm Gartner projected that app usage is “mellowing” as adoption rates mature.

If it’s such a gloomy fate, why do companies invest so much money building and marketing apps? Because, in theory, they can perform better — better user experience, faster speeds — and thus have better retention among those who use the app.

A study by Quixy exposes the consumer sentiment among people who like using apps:

When it came to why users liked mobile apps, 28.3% said they provide a better user experience. Additionally, respondents liked that apps offer access to more features and capabilities and that they have push notifications and alerts…Some 20.5% of respondents said they didn’t like that mobile browsers weren’t as fast as an app.

However:

Nearly one-third of respondents said they like that mobile browsers provide access to all the content they’re looking for in one place. Additionally, 23.2% said there’s no need to install anything new on their device…They disliked that mobile apps take up storage space on their phone and don’t provide enough access to everything they need…

If you have a loyal customer base looking for constant, unfettered access to your product that they know and love…great, build an app, assuming the customer base is large enough to merit the development costs. But if you’re looking to build a “killer app” that will drive a ton of traffic and engagement, probabilistically, it’s not worth the fuss.

This sums up to a simple strategy (for most industries): mobile apps are great for retention, poor for acquisition.

Of course, there are exceptions, from gaming hits like Pokemon Go to social-video sensations like Snapchat, to maybe even the NYT app. But these are called exceptions for a reason.

So, what will take over our home screens instead?

Messaging. First and most obvious, messaging platforms. It will take some time, but many of the apps we know and love will likely serve us better as conversational apps or bots inside the guts of Facebook’s Messenger, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Slack’s Slackbot, and Google’s Allo / TBD (among others).

WeChat is the prime example of a possible future. With hundreds of millions of monthly active users “who use the app as a filter for the mobile web: you can hail taxis, book doctor’s appointments, do your grocery shopping or pay your utility bill, all through WeChat.”

Others have written extensively about the promise of messaging, including an excellent piece by Ben Eidelson, who aptly wrote: “Messaging is essentially the child of the social and mobile platforms and can bring with it the best from both.”

tl;dr: Conversation as interface is not only inevitable, it’s here.

“Progressive Apps,” mobile web, and / or something in between. Mobile web experiences will likely still carve out real estate on the home page, but in a new form. Some argue for the “progressive web apps,” coined by Alex Russell, a developer at Google.

Progressive apps are accessed via the browser and essentially “progress into an app-like experience over time,” storing data locally and seeking permission to push notifications, as Fast Company’s Jared Newman explains. He writes:

The pursuit of better web apps isn’t just academic…[Progressive apps] don’t have to prove their value to users up front. We’re all used to seeing those obnoxious messages when we visit Yelp or some random news source, urging us to install their native apps instead of loading the mobile website. Most of us ignore these nags, because we don’t want to stop what we’re doing just to download an app we’re not even sure about. Progressive Web Apps at least get a chance to ingratiate themselves first.

Whether Russell’s exact vision comes to fruition remains to be seen, but there’s definitely a case for brand to leverage social and search discovery and progress its way into a more integrated relationship with you (and your phone) over time.

Killer Apps. Despite my loathing of “apps” as a broad bucket of icons and walled gardens, some experiences are still optimal as native apps. Products that over-index on immersive, consumptive or conversational experiences will likely remain native apps, such as video, music, gaming, and social, to name a few. The top 10 apps from 2015 are a good signal.

Ironically, these apps that are likely to dominate our screens might also take up the most storage space. Immersion generally requires more horsepower, and device makers are adjusting accordingly. Android doubled its app size limit in the play store from 50 MB to 100 MB in late 2015, following Apple’s lead.


Designing for emerging technologies is a giant puzzle of timing and talent. It takes time for teams, however innovative, to adapt to new technologies, to truly understand their potential, inner workings, and build natively in a way that is aligned with user needs and adoption curves.

It’s been less than a decade since the iPhone hit the shelves. Eight years since the app store launched. Sure, this is eons in digital times, but perhaps we’re just entering adolescence. From conversational interfaces to progressive apps, mobile-first design might finally be coming into its own, which bodes well for great user experiences…and perhaps not so well for the “app store.”

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