App Permanence is Vastly Overstated

Mobile apps are far from perfect. In fact, it’s remarkable how popular and ubiquitous they are on mobile devices, despite being difficult to discover, closed off (both from each other but also across mobile platforms), and harder to build. That they’re now seen as the yardstick to measure the success of a phone or tablet goes to show how far they’ve come, particularly since the original iPhone prevented 3rd party apps from being installed at all.

Somewhere along the way, though, we’ve been so enamored by the pretty animations and instant social connections that the value proposition of a native app is largely separated from the reality of building, releasing, and maintaining such apps. It seems like there are app company launches or compilation of app download figures every week, so it might be worth revisiting some of the assumptions we make about the apps ecosystem.

Games are in a league of their own

It shouldn’t be a surprise that games are a great fit for cheap and easy-to-download online stores that provide follow-up purchases in in-app payments. In particular, the mobile form factor, touch controls, and patterns of mobile usage along with accessibility to hardware and sensors have made gaming absolutely huge as an app category and displacing both other types of apps as well as non-smartphone gaming platforms. When 96% of the top developers on iOS and Android make games, there’s little question as to what drives app downloads and sales.

That said, being a game developer isn’t necessarily a free ticket to riches and stardom. At some point, the math catches up to the dream; these games still take months to build, and they consume the talents and energy of some really smart developers but are ultimately released as free or $0.99 throwaways. If games don’t go under via piracy, they can be too generous, or be priced in line with other forms of entertainment only to be accused of gauging users for the audacity of charging how much making a game – particularly with high production values – actually costs.

Everybody else jumps on the hype train

And if games are the head of the pack in terms of actually making money, the rest of the apps are in a considerably worse state. For all the effort and time poured into making software for a hardware-constrained device, cheap prices mean that most apps don’t earn enough to stay out of the red. The process for search, discovery, and feedback (i.e., ratings and reviews) for apps is still primitive compared to what other platforms have in place.

It has led to widespread gaming of search results and rankings in order to claw to the top of the each store’s respective top lists. Whereas Google has had a decade of experience in dealing with and fighting back against undesirable SEO tactics, the search algorithms governing app stores are more susceptible to bots and manual manipulation, and users are lulled into a false sense of security by the standard of quality that these app/play stores purport to uphold.

Even bizarro strategies like giving away your product for free or at a massive discount regularly is now commonplace and expected; it’s done not so much as a loss leader but just as a way to boost store rankings and generate some small amount of hype. Again, what was effective with one company and two apps loses its impact when prices drop 10x a year. Every holiday, new hardware release, announcement, conference, and sometimes just the lack of more interesting news is another opportunity to engage in some Groupon-esque loss-leading marketing.

Most apps are trash

Apps today are pretty disposable and yet they get backed up and restored as if they were priceless childhood memories.

– Gabor

For all the big numbers Apple, Google and Amazon throw around about the number of apps they control, it’s understandable and perhaps even expected that most of the apps are terrible, useless, or ripoffs. When the iOS store first launched, the joke was that it was filled with fart apps; underlining that stereotype is a grain of truth, that building a platform alone does not guarantee quality or utility[2]. In fact, our current plague of underpriced apps probably stem from this era of immature, no-effort app development: the novelty was enough to drive a few sales, and customer expectations have forced prices to stay near the bottom of the barrel ever since.

I’d argue that the current app ecosystem incentivizes trashy, disposable apps. It’s a bit harder to build an app than say, a blog (which, unsurprisingly, is also mostly crap), but the latter has evolved ample filters and curation so the crap stays near the bottom, and the cost to the user is just time. Bad apps cost substantially more bandwidth and sometimes real money, but worse adds confusion and can actually displace more worthwhile products. They’ll be quickly deleted, only for a dozen more to spring up trying to capture just enough sales to keep the enterprise profitable.

Useful apps are glorified web views

Outside of the gaming behemoth, there are a few precious productivity apps – some of which make good use of the device’s unique hardware – but most are made to consume, with content coming from the cloud. (e.g., a server) That is, most apps provide the same function as websites, optimized for a mobile screen, sometimes with a few nifty animations to swipes or page transitions, and occupy precious real estate on your home screen for the bargain price of a 40MB download.

For those who didn’t build their business “mobile first” – that is to say, the vast majority of companies and apps with any sort of reach – mobile usage means having the app act as another window onto the service they’re providing. This is pretty evident from how close some apps look to their mobile and sometimes desktop web counterparts: Yelp, New York Times, Quora, Amazon, Twitter, etc. And while using native code will, 9 times out of 10, produce a better UI and a more pleasant user experience[1], there’s not much of a business case to be made on spending a lot more time and effort to build on a handful of closed platforms with multitudes of restrictions and have their app stores skim a sizable chunk of revenue off the top.

The biggest value gained from releasing an app in the App/Play/Windows store is that downloaded apps are automatically placed on one of the user’s home screens. Beyond a pretty client view, the app icon and widget also serve as a glorified bookmark, a reminder that stares at the user whenever they unlock their phone. Customizing home screen icons and widgets have even become a source of expression and pride, to showcase the importance of placement and presumably engagement.

Keeping usage is hard

So outside of games and online service frontends, most apps end up being noise that don’t survive the hour post download. The fallout from the curated store model has encouraged this outcome, and while countless indie developers are still bashing their heads against the merciless mobile rocks, I can’t help but feel like this is merely the learning phase of the mobile revolution.

I’d love for apps to last more than a few hours or days on my devices; to be profitable to their makers; to have the right tools for finding and recommending to users so to discourage low-quality shovelware; to be useful enough to keep around and demand to be backed up. With the gold rush over at this point, we should rethink what constitutes as success on mobile, and the changes we have to make to enable more of that metric.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)
  1. See also: Facebook apps.
  2. I remember the considerable backlash when Facebook switched over from HTML5 to native and claimed a 2x increase in speed. Most said that FB’s implementation was kinda crappy, and while that might be true, the problem is that most HTML5 mobile implementations will be crappy.