The mobile app crisis

On Thursday 10th July 2008 Apple launched the iPhone App Store to the world, with over 500 native apps available to download to turn your phone into, well, whatever you imagined it could be.

A frightening 10 years on (almost) there is an incredibly long list of app stores, and an overwhelming number of apps to choose from. App stores have popped up from all of the tech giants: Google, Amazon, and even Facebook. In the first quarter of 2018 app store reports show that there are around 4 million apps on the Google Play store and around 2 million on the Apple App Store. That’s a lot of apps, a lot of development time, and a serious amount of competition.

The numbers above suggest a thriving digital world, people engaged in great apps, innovation, and technology. They also suggest a place of great opportunity for developers, designers, and innovators, a place where they can make their mark (and hopefully livelihood).

This is great, in theory, but unfortunately this isn’t actually the case. The ‘app’ wave has lost momentum, and the ‘app’ buzzword is no longer particularly fashionable (at least by itself, more on that below). In order to continue to grow and thrive the app stores need great apps to be developed and an engaged public to use them.

Let’s take a look through the process of app development from concept through to use, and explore the challenges facing both parties along the way.

“any idea will do”

Is That A Good Idea?

An app will inevitably not come from a single idea, and it often won’t appear quickly. Coming up with a good, useful app, takes a great deal of time and therefore ‘cost’ to the individual or company developing it.

There’s another interesting balance to strike here; as an advocate for technology for good I feel the drive to get an app in peoples hands with hope of making a quick profit has meant we have developed a mentality that ‘any idea will do’, resulting in an app store saturated with incomplete ideas that don’t offer people anything useful or meaningful.

“designing an app can be very expensive”

Do I Need A Designer?

They are under-appreciated, incredibly important, and there’s a reason a good designer’s work goes unnoticed. Getting the design of an app right is a huge challenge, especially when you think about the wide array of devices with varying screen sizes and capabilities. This amount of variation then multiplies when you start considering different platforms (iOS, Android, Windows, etc) too. As a small insight, at Lunar Works we develop 8 design variations for every screen/page in an app or website as a starting point — that’s a lot of design work (and development work which I’ll get onto in a moment).

A good design process has a lot of steps; research, user testing, and prototyping to name just a few. All of this means that designing an app can be very expensive, and we haven’t even got to the development, running and marketing costs. It’s very easy to see why a lot of apps are just made without any proper design input, it’s much easier to just hack at it and get the idea out there.

“anyone can build an app”

It’s Just A Matter Of Making It, Right?

There are a lot of tools and resources that mean ‘anyone can build an app’. But if you want a good app, you need an experienced developer. There is a lot to consider when building an app; architecture, data model, security, devops, user interface, testing, maintenance, the list goes on. Just like with design this all takes time, quite a bit of it, and a developer’s time is expensive (some of us are more reasonable than others).

There is also the inevitable ‘native’ vs ‘hybrid’ consideration. Building native means hiring platform specific developers for each platform you want your app to be available on. Alternatively going ‘hybrid’ means making sacrifices in return for reaching a slightly wider audience (hybrid apps can rarely be made available for all platforms and devices).

“marketing budget is everything”

How Will Users Find It?

Luckily, unlike the web, it’s really easy for apps to get found by users on the app stores — wait, there are 4 million apps on the Google Play Store, so it’s incredibly hard to get found amongst the noise. The reality is your marketing budget is everything; some of the top grossing apps have marketing budgets that start at 6 figures. Not many companies or developers have much in the way of a marketing budget, at least when compared to these kinds of figures.

It’s also becoming harder to get found, Apple overhauled their App Store last year, and the web version at the beginning of the year. One of the biggest changes facing app developers was the introduction of ads, as ultimately the folks with the cash come out on top again.

‘Storage Almost Full’

But They Install Easily?

It’s true, apps install with one tap (if we ignore entering your password or authenticating using your fingerprint, and signing into the app store if you’re using a new device, oh and confirming your card details even though it’s a free app).

Once you’ve completed that ‘one-step’ process, you just have to wait a moment whilst the app downloads and installs. Here comes the big challenge. Firstly, have you got enough room on you device? Apps are huge, pushing 100s of MB, and they’re only getting bigger with more and more graphics designed for ‘retina’ like devices. We’ve all seen the ‘Storage Almost Full’ popup at some point. Users have to download our entire app, even if they will only end up using a small portion of it, we’ve had to store a lot of unnecessary bloat, wasting precious storage.

Additionally, downloading all that data can be incredibly slow, we have to remember that not all homes have high-speed broadband, and most people still only experience a low quality 3G mobile signal. Of course all this is irrelevant if downloading our app will push our users over their 100MB monthly data limit on their contract.

“we all have a few apps that we use a lot”

How Often Will They Use It?

So far there have been quite a few hurdles to overcome, some of which are very significant, and most apps will not end up being installed — a huge number of users will drop of at each stage along this discovery-install journey.

Once installed and now a superellipse or squircle on the user’s home screen, there is still no guarantee that the app will be opened or used. I have opened apps countless times to be immediately frustrated by it asking me to create an account, approve the use of my location, and camera, and microphone, and join their mailing list, all before I can complete the simple task I wanted the app for. The word convenience comes to mind.

The pattern we are now seeing is that we are using fewer and fewer apps more frequently, meaning we all have a few apps that we use a lot, the rest either get moved to a folder we never look at or get deleted permanently. I know I have 5 or 6 apps that I frequent, despite having over 40 apps on my phone. I should probably sort that out.

“Enter the Progressive Web App”

Crisis? What Crisis?

I appreciate all of the above has been a bit of a slam against the app market, but the market is shifting, and the industry needs to react. It’s clear that native (and hybrid apps for that matter) are struggling, and as a developer it’s a worrying sign to see the app market changing in this way. So where do we go from here?

There’s an emerging piece of web technology that is quickly gaining traction. It’s aim is to bring the power of the native to the browser. Enter the Progressive Web App. Progressive Web Apps are set to be the next big thing, and will dramatically change the way we think about, develop, and use apps. They will solve a lot of the issues outlined above, and bring powerful technology to more people than ever, all in an incredibly efficient way. We have started building PWA’s at Lunar Works, and are currently working on a couple of demos to show you what they are capable of.

In my next article I will be discussing the rise of the Progressive Web App. I’ll cover a lot of what has been discussed in this article, taking the challenges raised and providing insight into Progressive Web Apps as a solution.

My Vision

I am driven by technology for good, both personally and for my business; Lunar Works. I believe that in order to successfully produce meaningful technology for society, we must build technology that can impact the most number of people in the most positive way. This is the challenge that keeps me enthusiastic about the industry and excited for the difference I can make.

Next Steps

These are my thoughts and musings; you may see the world in a different way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Are you a developer struggling to find your place in the app store? Are you a business looking to build an app but overwhelmed by the options? Are you an end user frustrated by the wide choice of apps and limited space on your device?

Keep looking out for new articles on the topics of AI, ML, Web Apps and technology in society.