The Appocalyse: No Bright Future for Apps

Remember a few years ago, when every marketer told you that you needed to augment your brand with new touch points and that you couldn’t possibly do without your own app? The vision was that every store, every dentist and delivery service would have its own app.

While for some use cases such as public transport, food delivery, or management of appointments like in medical or public services apps have proven a great way to streamline transactional processes, many businesses wasted enormous amounts of money on creating apps that were perhaps downloaded once and never used again.

Ingenious and unscrupulous companies jumped on the bandwagon and created software that allowed for the simple and quick creation of apps, without complicated coding and very intuitive drag-and-drop functionality. (Also without much in the way of data security!)

Marketing agencies tried to convince you that you must combine the easy general info of your website with the user-focused functionality of the cool app; wishful thinking in many cases, lining the pockets of app developers and adding no benefits for customers.

Iterations of such services were copied around the world and localized in all major languages, and the app space exploded. Suddenly our mobile device screens filled with newspaper apps, public transport apps, ride-sharing service apps, restaurant apps, point collecting apps, accommodation apps and the local app to the best tourist attractions in a city we will only visit once in your life.

Point towards the QR code and download yet another app, until your screen is so cluttered it takes you five minutes to find the damn icon you thought was green but turned out to be yellow after the latest update — because you haven’t used the app in six months. Every restaurant and railway thought they needed to lock customers into their own app universe, coming up with ever cleverer ideas to reward loyalty and generate return business.

Apps, apps everywhere — until there were none

For a time the vision was that one day, every brand, business, boutique hotel, and burger joint would have its own mobile app. Apps promised to add “value” to the customer experience, lower labor cost, streamline business processes, increase customer loyalty and protect businesses from downturns.

But there are a few simple reasons why apps are actually on the way out.

Firstly, just like you can only fit so many store loyalty cards in your wallet, your phone will only hold so many apps before it becomes unwieldy. Some people may manage 100 apps, but most of us think 40–50 is more than enough. That’s not counting the bloatware installed by phone manufacturers in the first place. Add to it the apps you really need for business and daily living, and you will find yourself faced with app overload. According to some research, over 95% of new apps are only downloaded once and never used again.

Secondly, apps only work if they are used frequently for a useful, time or money-saving purpose.

My doctor’s app allows me to make appointments without having to speak to anyone, in seconds, and without providing repeat information. My bus service app allows me to see how many minutes the next bus is away. My supermarket app allows me to collect and redeem points just by scanning a barcode at every purchase. That’s useful, saves money, and provides actual value.

Apps that just provide information are faring less well. I won’t install the English-Spanish dictionary app if I can just google a word I don’t know. I won’t install my shoe store’s app, because I only buy a pair of shoes once a year and don’t really have any relationship with the brand anyway. I don’t use the Amazon app, because I prefer to shop via the desktop interface, which provides more information about products in an easier-to-absorb format.

All major brands thought they needed apps — until they realized how much effort it takes to keep them up-to-date, debug them, or else see them buried in app nirvana by bad reviews on the app store. Every time there is an update to the operating system, something goes awry with your app and you have to pay coders insane amounts of money to come up with a new version. If you’ve ever been involved in mobile app development, you know what I am talking about.

Apps are great — for a very small number of applications

In practice, unless you are a major online retailer or publisher of large amounts of content, delivered to thousands or millions of customers, or a public utility, you will probably be better off with a mobile-friendly website (RWD). Anything you can provide on a website should go there. If it can’t be done easier, better, and cheaper via an app, don’t bother with app development.

The app landscape is changing too. As a restaurant, why have your own delivery app if UberEats and FoodPanda can offer far better functionality and reach? How many people are really using newspaper apps, when they get most of their information through Google or content aggregators such as Medium? It takes time and money to promote the use of your own app, whereas joining an existing ecosystem of content can amplify your brand’s reach without spending a dime. For many B2B brands, having an impressive, engaging LinkedIn presence would probably do more for their business than investing in useless apps clients don’t really need and prospective clients don’t value anyway.

In many places, for example, gas (petrol) station chains came up with their own apps thinking that they could retain customers that way — only to be outsmarted by apps that should the cheapest prices in a certain radius.

In China, WeChat is showing the way by integrating thousands of functions into one central app. Although this is driven by government efforts to keep an eye on it citizens and would probably not work as well in more privacy-minded cultures, it is showing a trend toward simplification and centralization of essential functions.

Services like Line and Whatsapp are emulating WeChat and have created APIs that allow 3rd parties to create mini-applications that work in the main chat program. This trend will only continue in the coming years. Facebook and perhaps Twitter too will develop such functionality, hoping to retain eyeballs and keep customers in their ecosystem.

Speed, privacy and safety

With the arrival of 5G (solving the 4G latency problem), and increased use of IoT and cloud services, the industry will consolidate further. Promoting your app will become more and more expensive as applications proliferate and software development costs fall as SaaS solutions take over. More than 80% of SaaS services today are provided through browsers rather than special-purpose apps. Browser functionality will increase, and with privacy and security concerns, the browser will provide a layer of protection from malware or ransomware.

Users will be assured by service providers complying with a browser’s security protocols — whereas, with a standalone app, you never know what it really does with your private information. Every new data breach or leak of private information from a stand-alone app will convince users that they are better off trusting big content providers rather than individual brands. And with legislation like GDPR forcing brands to spend even more on data protection, management, and security, I am sure we are heading towards the day of the appocalypse — when it will be cheaper, faster, safer, and easier for anyone to use browser-dominated SaaS solutions or specialized app ecosystems rather than installing yet another badly designed, unreliable app.