The “App Gap”, Windows Phone has been struggling with it since the beginning. Firefox OS Blackberry OS, WebOS, Symbian and all the other IOS and Android competitors have all failed at least in part because of it. Without users, nobody will want to develop an app for your platform, without apps nobody will want to use your platform.
Chicken, egg, Marton, ‘The Story Behind’ series, Episode 8 pretty much everything you do on your smartphone right now, you do through an app. You Facebook through Facebook WhatsApp through WhatsApp, and you Snapchat through Snapchat. Unless of course, you are on a windows phone, in which case you don’t Snapchat.
Sure, you can skip some of the apps like watching YouTube in your phone’s browser for example. But do you really want to? No, no you don’t. You want the app. Just like in the 1990s, every company figure out that they have to have a website. In the 2010s, everyone and their grandmother figured they need their own app.
Apps have become the default way to get things done these days. But what about the 2020s? Or even the 2030s? Will apps remain the one true way to do everything? I doubt it, see, apps are actually quite a hassle to both users and developers. For the user, each app requires to be found downloaded and installed, and then each one looks and acts differently so each has to be learned. They also use up your phone storage and RAM and other resources, and even a spot on the oh, so valuable home screen.
Sure, these are all small problems but they are kind of annoying if a user could turn on the flashlight or order a pizza without having to go through the hassle of getting a whole new app they would probably prefer that. Now, on the other hand, designing, developing and constantly maintaining an app is a lot of work too. Sure, some companies like Facebook or game producers, for example, make money directly from users you know, using their app, but most companies just have the apps as an interface between the company and the customers.
If you’re an airline, you just want people to buy your tickets, if you’re Uber, you just want people to take rides with Uber and so on. That interface between you and the customer is necessary, but what if it didn’t have to be a designated app? If you could sell tickets and Uber rides without having to spend your time making the interface yourself, you’d be more than happy, right? So if apps are such a hassle for both sides, then surely there will be a better solution in the future.
I have three distinct possibilities in mind. The least revolutionary one is already happening, but you might not have noticed it yet. I’m talking about “super applications”, of course, apps that combine features from tons of other apps. The best example of this would be WeChat, and, to some extent, Facebook.
WeChat started out as a messaging app in China but has transformed into the biggest super application in the world, with over 800 million users. On top of messaging and social media, it works as a digital wallet, so users can send and receive money online, and pay for things in the real world like you would with, say, Apple Pay in a grocery store. The app has an e-Commerce platform and a customer service platform built-in, and users can book flights and bus tickets, call a taxi, pay bills and do just about everything imaginable through it.
Suddenly, a user can make transfers without using, say, the PayPal app, call a taxi without opening the Uber app for example, and so on. And these replacements are already happening.
Chatbots Replacing Apps
The second method I can think of is a little bit more futuristic, and yet it sounds like a bad joke from the early 2000s: Chatbots. Yes, I know they usually suck, but with a little bit of help from artificial intelligence, that should soon change.
Microsoft is betting big on bots and, if you open up a newer version of Skype, you can find a whole list of them, And some of them want to replace your apps.
The sky scanner app, for example, is my favourite place to find cheap flight tickets and believe it or not, they have a Skype bot. I can simply type in dates and destinations, and it will show me flights that I can interact with.
There’s also a UPS bot that helps you track packages, and a meme creator that, you know, creates memes. That’s all pretty basic for now, but bots on Skype just came into existence, and it’s not hard to see how they could eventually replace a lot of the apps, we’re using.
Facebook is apparently also working on bots inside messenger, and I imagine others do too.
JARVIS in Future
The third, and most advanced method is virtual assistants, Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana and Alexa are the biggest players for now. And they’re essentially just more universal and more advanced chatbots if you think about it.
They can already do things like searching the web, finding new restaurants nearby, identifying the song that is playing on the radio, calling you an Uber, controlling your Philips Hue lightbulbs, or your Sonos speakers, and some, like Amazon’s Alexa for example, are connected to your credit card so they can even make purchases for you right away.
Those are all things you previously needed dedicated apps for, and one by one, feature by feature, these assistants are making those apps redundant.
Of course, some apps can’t easily be replaced by the above three methods, such as games and professional applications, like Photoshop and Office. I mean, I would love to live in the future, where I can just tell Cortana to edit my videos and then return in half an hour to have everything done, but that’s still a few decades ahead, I think. Still, even for apps and programs like these, there will be improved streaming.
Gaming To Another Level
Nvidia, Steam, Xbox, PlayStation and many others are already offering some sort of game streaming to PCs and phones, and HP, for example, enables users to run classic, Win32 desktop applications on its Elite X3 phone by having them streamed from an HP server. So you can actually use Photoshop on your phone.
With internet connections improving, streaming apps should eventually become a pretty good experience, and this means that even those complex apps and programs that, for now, have to remain absent programs could run on just about anything, even hardware that they weren’t specifically written for.
So while in 2016 the interface for every single service a user wants to enjoy is generally a dedicated new app, I think this won’t be the case in a decade or so. Most Routine services will be replaced by some sort of aggregator, like super apps, assistants and bots, while more complex ones will probably either remain as they are now, or be streamed to the user’s device.
And this new way of getting things done will have profound effects on the industry. Many developers won’t spend their time developing their own apps but instead will work on feeding info through APIs into other aggregator services, like the Google Assistant for example.
On top of today’s classic optimizations like improving your app’s position in the app store and your website’s ranking in a Google search, developers of the future will also optimize their services for things like Siri or Cortana or some sort of chatbot for example. That will be the real competitive advantage after all. When the user tells Cortana to call a cab, the service with the best Cortana integration will be the one to get the cab after all.
Now, this is both great and terrifying for service providers, complexity will be significantly reduced for them, because they won’t have to maintain a whole app, of course, but this convenience comes at the cost of freedom. Skype can decide whether it lets Skyscanner put the bot into their app or not, it decides how it ranks different bots, what features these bots can have, and what they can look like and so on.
The same way Google Assistant pretty much decides which one the best Mexican restaurants in your vicinity are when you ask it. All the power is going into the hands of these aggregators, service providers have to optimize for them, pay them for a better ranking and communicate with users through them, which will make these aggregators incredibly influential.
The transition will also mean that the app gap, as it is won’t really matter anymore, because the number of apps that are present on a platform won’t be the deciding factor in how many services the user can access. Instead, the question will be how good the chatbots, the virtual assistants, the super applications and the app streaming on a platform are, and how many services those can tap into.
And since most of the integration between a service provider and an aggregator happen on the back-end, it means that suddenly all of these services can be present on any OS or platform that the aggregator is present on. And actually getting an aggregator to go to a new platform where a new OS is pretty simple, or at least much more simple than getting millions of apps to move.
Skype and Cortana for example, are present on every major platform, Windows PCs, Windows Mobile devices, Android phones, iOS devices, and, in pretty much any browser too. And so is every external service that ties in with them, think about this, it essentially means that in the future, the number of services that you will be able to use will depend more on the choice of your personal assistant than on your choice of an operating system.
And that will be the end of the app gap and possibly the start of a whole new kind of gap.