Time and time again we hear someone proclaim that apps are going away. We hear that the way the homescreen on our mobile phone is needs change. Most recently, such a proclamation was made by very well respected product designer Paul Adams. You can read his ideas on this topic here.
I disagree with an impending APPocalypse.
Intent v. Thirst
We use our phones, and any technology to fulfill two kinds of activities: (a) activities that help us be productive and (b) activities that help us be educated/be entertained/pass time.
Not only are these two kinds of activities are fundamentally different, but the facilitators of each of these kinds of activities are different and want control over their experience.
For the rest of this post, I’ll refer to these two kinds of activities as “intent” and “thirst” because activities that help us be productive often begin with preconceived intent and those that help us be educated, be entertained or pass time have some form of thirst propelling them.
Intent activities can be fulfilled by specific apps such as Uber/NYC Transit/Kayak(travel intent), BofA/Mint/Capital One (Banking/Finance intent), WhatsApp/WeChat/SMS (messaging intent), NFL Mobile/Yahoo Fantasy Sports (score checking intent). Intent activities can also be fulfilled by more generic search engines such as Google when users aren’t sure about which specific source to look to for their current intent. There are also a handful of companies (Quixey/URX/Relcy/Google/Facebook) trying to crack searching the content of apps and helping users achieve their intent faster by linking them deep into app content.
Thirst apps often have a discovery related page or stream as a key component. Some of the best examples of thirst apps are YouTube/Spotify (music & video thirst), Facebook/Twitter (social thirst) and Coursera/TED (educational thirst). Many thirst apps fall into the “I have a moment, what’s going on?” bucket.
Some apps cradle the line between intent and thirst apps and fulfill both needs. Two great examples of such apps are Amazon (shopping intent & thirst), YouTube (entertainment intent & thirst).
Apps vs Services
It is important that we don’t confuse apps with services. Apps can use services within but apps are ultimately the entities that users interact with. Stripe, a payment service, can be integrated into any application without the user ever having to interact with Stripe directly. An app can also provide a set of services that other apps can ‘hook into’. Examples of apps that provide such hooks include Facebook/Twitter which allows you to share media from other applications (e.g. camera) or Uber which allows other apps to integrate its offering (e.g. United Airlines). These ‘platform’ companies offer services to the user via , but the user always interacts with some app at the time of intent to utilize the provided service.
In an ideal world, every one of these properties/apps will play fair & square with each other. However, in our real world, most of them rarely do. They all want to ‘own the user’ from the experience, mindshare and branding perspective.
The Perfect Stream
Paul and others argue that apps as we know it will morph into services that a perfect stream will then put together and present perfectly. He, like many others, alludes to Google Now as a starting point for such discussion. But he, like many others, forgets a basic tenet of the way in which we love using our mobile phones: predictability. When I unlock my phone, I know exactly where to look on my home screen for Google Maps, know exactly where to look for the shortcut to the conversation with my girlfriend, and know exactly where to look when I want to quickly open the camera (intent). If I had a phone which tried to predict what I would need at every given time and change how my homescreen looked like (e.g. Aviate Launch v0, pre-Yahoo acquisition), I’d go nuts never knowing where anything was.
Additionally, A stream-centric vision of app use ignores that incoming events are only part of the picture. It doesn’t afford for user-initiated actions that don’t fit into the stream. Streams are great for consuming incoming events, but not realizing our intents.
Another question to ponder is who the company that decided what was appropriate would be? Google? Then Yahoo, Facebook & Twitter wouldn’t be happy. Facebook? Then Google, Yahoo & Twitter wouldn’t be happy… You get the point.
We live in a world where every service wants to be front and center and everyone wants to ‘own the stream’ and ‘own the user’, so no one will.
HTC, through it’s HTC BlinkFeed experience, does provide a stream which mixes content from all of a user’s social streams (thirst apps) on the left screen of it’s Android home screen experience. And it’s great. But not many people care for it today and it hasn’t really taken off. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc have given BlinkFeed the ability to show their content, but not interact with it. Because they want to have the user enter their world and stay in it for as long as possible.
What we have today, as 2014 fades, is an experience (on Android) that tries to balance intent and thirst. On the left screen, Google provides Google Now, Samsung provides Flipboard, and HTC provides BlinkFeed. On every other screen, we have shortcuts to our apps so that when we have the intent to use one of them we can do so without any friction.
As we move into a world with richer notifications, and smarter devices, it is fair to expect better and more streamlined experiences. However, it is a folly, and too simplistic, to expect companies battling each other for every second of a user’s attention to allow a third party aggregator to control their destiny and break down the walled gardens that they have so carefully made.
For what it’s worth, this is exactly how the web has played out as well and there is no reason to believe that mobile will be different. There isn’t really a popular site that mixes Google, Yahoo, Facebook & Twitter for the masses. We are used to different domains/silos that provide us with ways to fulfill our intent or thirst. And, it’s pretty pathetic how useless the ‘new tab’ screen still is in most browsers!
My prediction for the future
I see many more content creators creating streams, many of which won’t be limited to the walls of their own apps. Why shouldn’t NFL have its own stream? How about Pinterest? How about TMZ? App developers will develop richer, more interactive notifications; they’ll develop ways for their content to be consumed on users’ home screens, and they’ll offer ways for other apps to connect with the content in their apps. But they’ll all make sure that when users have intention or thirst something out, their offering is front and center. Users will have the opportunity to drink from the stream of their choice. Every stream will have it’s access to a subset of the available services & content, but a one-stream-to-rule-them-all is something that isn’t realistic in today’s mobile ecosystem.