Apps are Floundering. But why?
By 2009, we all loved apps. The iPhone was an established critical and commercial success, the AppStore was the next big thing, and users were on the lookout for word of the next cool, groundbreaking, interesting minature software that would entertain or amaze.
The love affair with apps is over.
It seems apps, after only a few short years in the spotlight, have gone stale. It isn’t the hardware. The phones, tablets, and now wearables, are the best ever created, with better, bigger, brighter screens, DSLR-ish cameras and more memory and processing than the poor old iPhone 3GS sitting in your desk drawer with a cracked screen could ever hope to possess. All this power now comes with a real choice of operating systems too, as Android has grown up from its awkward 2.1 teen years.
So where are all the great new apps? I have a few suspicions as to why, as an industry, mobile apps are stuck in the mud.
The Blessing and Curse: AppStores
Yes, the AppStore and Google Play have made it remarkably easy to install apps on phones and tablets. But the stores, as a way to find great software, are horrendous. I’ll focus on Apple’s original AppStore, as it started this concept and has not aged well, but Google Play has its own stuggles and shares many of the same issues.
First, there are just too many apps. There is no quality bar whatsoever left to get into the store, payment aside. 90% or more of the apps in the store are awful by any reasonable standard of software engineering, usability, stability, graphic and interaction design or any other measure. Most apps are simply ecosystem pollution. This is compounded by the fact that many apps are now aging badly, as apps designed for the now-tiny iPhone 3 aren’t ready for an iPhone 6 world.
I undersand that most, if not all, app developers mean well. Many students, for example, are excited to publish their first app to the store. Others are developers are just experimenting or adding skills to a resume and not intending to offend the public with a half baked interface. But unfortunately, all of this still creates millions of apps to sift.
This sifting is, of course, the job of search. Apple is clearly inept in its attempt to make the AppStore properly searchable. Unless a user knows the exact name of an app (Facebook, Uber, Yelp, etc.) or an app is named to exactly match its function (for example, Cash from Square or Job Search from Indeed.com), he or she has almost no hope of finding an app based on search.
The AppStore, even years into its development and a key selling point of iOS devices, doesn’t allow for even modestly complex search. The other day, I wanted to download an app to design a quick layout or logo. If you search design in the AppStore you get over 17,000 results. Many of the top results are, of course, games. Games, like Fashion Star Boutique, that are vaguely design related have their place, but when I’m looking for design? Can you imagine if searches for design on Google returned cartoon fashion games? We would all still use Yahoo! instead. And phonebooks.
This leads us to our next clogged artery in mobile apps.
Games are Not Apps
Even with poor search and a strange, unhealthy love of top 10 lists powering the AppStore, the experience would improve tenfold with a simple change — giving mobile games their own store.
In what use case would a user search for business software, education reference, camera filters, calculators, or travel aids and find 45 exact clones of Piano Tiles helpful?
Mobile games are certainly a major part of the app ecosystem, and every game developer and enthusiast loves to mention that games are some high percentage of all downloads from the AppStore and Google Play.
For apps to thrive, they need either an AppStore free of the content in the, uh, GameStore(TM?) or a setting for users to hide games, as needed, in search results.
If you walk into a court room, do you expect to find a Par 5? How would you feel about a doctor’s office with a go-kart track and a lobby full of elves with pixie dust machine guns? Games and business software are equally as strange bedfellows.
But games as the primary result of any search for apps are actually a symptom of a larger problem.
Most Apps Aren’t Apps At All
Users are fatigued with apps because most of the apps they’ve downloaded don’t take advantage of any features unique to installed mobile software. Most apps are really websites in miniature, or websites in miniature with a camera or a GPS-based location finder.
Great apps pass a simple test: the solution must be an app to create the desired user experience. If the answer is no, and the user experience doesn’t require an app, that’s fine too, but then what is your mobile website doing in the AppStore?
But less heralded apps are catching on that apps are not just mobile websites. USAA, in a recent update, now uses VOIP to phone Customer Service. But because the call is initiated in their own app, the wait time is displayed before you call, and the security authentication is already taken care of by the app. The representative can greet me by name. The representive of a bank, acting like I’m a real person, not a numeric verification sequence to destroy a starship. Try that with a mobile website.
Poorly designed, poorly executed apps, along with thousands of apps that should never have been apps (Wells Fargo and the mobile web garbage they have in the AppStore, for example) have a cumulative effect. Users are tired. They won’t download an app as easily now, and they have very low expectations when they do.
So where are the next wave of quality apps going to come from? The answer probably won’t be apps that spread as quickly from friend to friend, but instead from co-worker to co-worker.
Apps Aren’t Always Sexy
The real work of mobile apps is just getting started. Now that a critical mass of users has been reached, apps will find their home in the enterprise. From on-site cost estimates to business intelligence dashboards to telemedicine to legal filings, apps will find new uses, and users, at every turn in progressive companies.
This leaves an interesting void in apps for personal use, and in the AppStores that drive mainstream app adoption. If the stores don’t improve from the current Mos Eisley of software scum and villainy, users will tune out and stick to the few favorites that can create a known brand, like OpenTable and Facebook. But we can hope these neglected, overgrown app stores that currently compete and rely on pure volume will either learn the art of curation or let competing stores on these devices that will.
If not, we’ll still be searching for the next Uber on iPhone 8S or Android Oreo. The result, of course, will be a game that lets you decorate popsicles with a magic princess. And its 45 clones.