In the next 3 to 7 years, I expect most mobile apps to vanish. With them, we’ll witness the loss of billions in venture capital that we’ve poured into the mobile startup sector. It will all be burned to ashes, with nothing left but stray lines of code.
The vision was that, one day, every legal entity would have its own mobile app.
The logic came to me six years ago. At the time, I was thinking about investing in a startup that created a mobile app to create apps for users without needing them to code (the concept is similar to website builders like Wix except for a native mobile app). You would simply enter some basic information and the app would generate an app for you on its cloud server. You could then download and install this app on your phone and ask others to do the same by sharing a link or QR code. The idea was to make it easy for individuals and small businesses to create their own personal apps for social or marketing purposes.
The vision was that, one day, every legal entity (human beings and companies) would have its own mobile app. These apps would be dotted all over the internet, like physical properties on a map. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. I doubt it ever will for a few straightforward reasons that are already affecting app usage.
1. We can only put up with about 50–100 apps on our phones.
If you don’t believe me, count the number of apps you have on your phone. Chances are, if you take away the manufacturer’s pre-installed apps that you can’t delete, you have, at most, 100 apps. Those you use frequently probably number less than 30. Too many apps slow down your phone. They take up memory space, run background processes, and constantly check for push notifications even when not in use.
In any case, would you really install a few hundred of your friends’ apps or the apps of all your favorite restaurants, grocers, and laundromats?
2. Apps must fulfill a frequent, functional purpose instead of just providing information.
When smartphones first appeared, major corporations rushed to make apps. Then they realized it was a real headache to maintain them. Every time you update information on your website or promote a product, you have to do the same on your app. And every time a handset manufacturer updates its operating system, you have to debug your app to make sure it keeps working — plus there are the pains of managing bugs on different brands, models, and screen sizes. If you’ve ever been involved in mobile app development, you know what I’m talking about.
The truth is, unless you are a major retailer or content publisher that needs to sell or deliver to customers frequently, all you really need is a mobile-friendly website. If information is all people want, they’re going to Google it in a browser.
Would you install so much different software on your laptop or PC?
3. Smaller apps will become part of social media and mobile wallet ecosystems.
Given the first two points, this third is a logical evolution and is already happening in some parts of the world. It’s what the industry calls “building an ecosystem.” The strategy involves binding users’ daily behaviors and spending into their mobile apps.
A good example is how restaurants and cafes are integrating into food delivery apps instead of maintaining their own online order and delivery systems. In turn, these food delivery apps are consolidating with mobile wallet or ride-share apps to provide synergy and convenience to users. Consider Go-Jek, the biggest motorcycle ride-share app in Indonesia. To many people, it’s an all-in-one mobile wallet, ride-hailing, food delivery, and lifestyle services app.
While WeChat approached integration from the beginning as an instant messaging app, other players in China are attempting to compete from other directions — Alipay from its base in e-commerce and Baidu from search engines. The Western world is lagging in this game of becoming a dominant app. It remains to be seen who will become the giant “app of apps” in other countries.
4. Even successful native apps will consolidate.
Any industry consolidates as it matures. This is especially true in the world of native apps, where economies of scale, large user bases, frequent traffic, and so on are required for monetization. No matter how wonderful a new app idea may be, it costs more and more in advertising and promotion before it reaches critical mass to effectively monetize, much less break even.
Apps were called “applications” in the first place because that’s what Apple called locally installed software in their computers to differentiate their system from Windows (which called them programs). Would you install as many different pieces of software on your laptop or PC as you do on your phone?
As far as installing anything on a hard drive goes, think about the trend toward cloud-based services and the software as a service (SaaS) models that are delivered over browsers instead of installing software.
Maintaining a mobile app requires time, effort, and money, especially when operating systems like iOS and Android update frequently. Have you noticed that every time you update the software on your phone, something goes wrong in one of your apps? Native apps are no longer as necessary as they once were. Consolidation is coming, and the era of “there’s an app for that” is coming to a close.
While I received a lot of fan mails, I also received some hate mails. One reader even offered to bet me $1,000 on how many native apps there’ll be in 3 years’ time.
The story got shared across Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flipboard and many other sites and forums, in multiple languages. This spawned many splinter discussion threads on other platforms.
On Medium itself, as at the date of writing there were 100 responses. Many readers gave useful feedback on where my article fell short and inspired new thoughts and direction.
With so many discussion threads in so many places, I decided to write this follow-up piece to summarize the most common questions asked by the readers. They relate to:
- Why the clickbait title?
- Do push notifications and too many apps really slow the phone down?
- Has some of my predictions already came true?
- Who in the West are likely to become giant ‘App of apps’?
- What does the future hold beyond smartphones?
- How should app developers adapt and thrive?
Yes, I confess. The title was clickbait.
The original title was “Mobile Apps will Disappear Soon”. I wanted to play on ‘disappear’ as a verb to convey my prediction that native apps will start to decline in numbers. I did not mean to say they will go extinct completely.
Guilty none the less…But…
When the Medium editors decided to feature the story, they changed it to “The End is Near for Mobile Apps”. I decided to go with their professional judgment.
Push notifications and app overload
A lot of readers pointed out that push notifications do not slow the phone down.
Again, partially my bad! Technically they are not wrong.
In my head I confused background processes with push notifications. The non-techie in me related one to the other because some apps with frequent push notifications like social media and instant messaging tend to occupy a lot of RAM.
In Android phones you can see this if you are geeky enough to open up the developer options and monitor the RAM usage by apps. For iPhones this is less of an issue due to the way the operating software is designed.
I wrote and published the original version of Part 1 in November 2016, based on my knowledge of Android phones when I was leading a startup team developing an app. Things have improved since, but your phone still slows down if you install too many apps.
Many articles support my view. Just google ‘do apps slow your phone down’. I shall quote from just one of the articles I found.
“You’ve probably installed more apps as you continue to use your device, some of which open at startup and run in the background. If you’ve installed a lot of apps that run in the background, they can consume CPU resources, fill up RAM, and slow down your device.”
— “Why Android phones slow down over time, and how to speed them up”
I rest my case.
China and India are leading in apps
In my article I pointed out that the inspiration for how native apps will evolve and become part of bigger apps and their ecosystems came from China.
One reader wrote to say the same thing is happening in India.
There are about 1.16 billion smartphone users in China and India. The world has about 2.53 billion smartphone users. This means that these two countries account for almost 46% of smartphone ownership in the world.
Although these two countries are considered developing economies, I’m betting that the native app ecosystem will evolve in similar ways since human nature is essentially, the same everywhere. Some readers argue structural differences, but at least in Southeast Asia where I’m from, I’m already seeing a lot of app based business models copying China’s lead.
This reader also mentioned Progressive Web Apps (PWA’s). Essentially these are hybrid apps that run on web browsers and can appear and behave like a native app. Alternatively, the aggregation of apps could be similar to how Wechat’s official accounts and mini-programs work.
Western world’s potential ‘App of apps’ giants
Another reader asked, who might be able to do such consolidation and integration of apps in Europe, USA, South America and Africa?
Well, I’m not entirely sure. In the western app ecosystem it seems that the only dominant apps present in almost all smartphones are the ones from Apple or Google. If they choose to get into the app game in a big way it could be them. After all, they already dominate mobile wallets with Apple Pay and Google Pay. Links to payment is essential for many apps to convert and monetize.
Social media or instant messaging is a second close possibility. Maybe Facebook will not do it under their core brand but acquire or start something else. After all, they’ve already bought Whatsapp and Instagram. Or it could be a e-commerce giant like Amazon, e-Bay or Paypal.
Alternatively, it might be a dominant ride-share app like Uber or Lyft. That is already happening in South-east Asia with Grab and Go-Jek. In the food & beverage industry, outlets are consolidating into delivery apps like Foodpanda and reservation services like Chope.
Beyond smartphones and mobile apps
And since we are crystal ball gazing, let’s look even further out (but not too far…)
My own bet is within the next decade an assortment of standard wearables will complement or even replace the smartphones we carry now.
I doubt, though, that smart glasses will become commonplace. Not everyone likes having to wear something on their face all the time. Otherwise contact lenses would not have became so popular.
It is likely that smart watches will be combined with something more sleek and compact; perhaps a multi-purpose earpiece. Eventually physical screens might evolve into air screens which will be projected only when we need it.
By then gesture and voice control should already be the norm, and devices will talk to us with synthesized speech. Image recognition will become so good our wearables will constantly feed us information and guidance on the physical environment and people around us.
If touch-based user interfaces survive, it’ll probably look like this…
How should app developers adapt and thrive?
In the near term, developers will increasingly persuade corporate clients to use hybrid apps and mobile responsive sites instead of native apps.
For those chasing the startup dream with native apps, they will gravitate towards utility, game or Internet of Things (IoT) apps. Also, their skill sets and imagination will need to rise to incorporate natural language processing (NLP) and augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) into their apps, as well as integration with other IoT devices, in order to deliver the kind of user experiences (UX) that consumers will come to expect.
User Interface (UI) design will also need to evolve since multiple wearables, AR/VR functions, and eventually, air screens will result in a multitude of screen sizes and interaction methods for users within one app.