How many apps do you load into your phone in the average week? How about in the average month? Chances are unless you just got a new phone that number’s pretty small. I have been hearing a lot of chatter lately about how we’ve reached “peak app” and it’s the “end of app culture.” Even veteran Walt Mossberg writes,
I just don’t feel that excited any more. Few smartphone veterans do. The App Store was new and brilliant then. It’s really, really old and dull now.
I read this on the same day I overheard someone saying, “I’m just not much of an app person.” It’s taken me about a month to really understand what that means. If I had to guess, I think it means that you get a phone and you load it up with the essentials (if they don’t come preloaded) and then you just don’t go to your phone’s app store ever again. You have your social apps, and the personal information management apps that come with the phone, and other than that you don’t look for new things to do with your phone.
So is that it? Are smartphones over? Can we just get dumbphones with the top 10 apps preloaded now and call it a day?
I think that’s a bit of a harsh assessment, but the one thing that’s clear is that the “wild west days” of app development are probably over. I’m sure there are a whole lot of new ideas out there, but the idea of putting up an app that does something nonessential and expecting to become a millionaire from it… those days probably are done with. With millions of apps to choose from, the easy stuff has been covered over and over again. Every public domain game is represented at least 50 times and Pokemon Go aside, it’s pretty rare now that a new app or game will really take the world by storm.
The app economy contributed a lot in the last decade, but it’s not likely to in the next decade. It’s likely that we’ll see no more than 5-10 “must-have” apps per year from now on, and that’s just fine. Perhaps what we’ll see is a dropoff in the number of low-quality apps. You’ve seen these before, the ones that crash your phone or just don’t work after an update. Or they do one thing like make flatulent noises while showing a picture of a goat. These apps probably shouldn’t have been written at all.
Given the changing nature of people’s relationships with their phones, the app stores need to evolve, too. It’s time for both Apple and Google to curate the stores, removing apps that haven’t been updated in years and demanding that developers bring real value to the stores. At the same time, both companies need to look at how they rank their apps. It’s great to give the top 50 free and paid apps but at this point those are going to be the same apps every week… the ones you probably already have on your phone. We need to see more lists of up-and-coming apps or new must-haves, when they actually happen. That might stir up some interest in “the app culture.”
Of course part of this app stagnation is the fact that built in and major market apps are so good. There was a time you might have seriously considered a different e-mail program or calendar program, but most people don’t — the ones the phone comes with are pretty darn good now, with features that you would have paid extra for just a few years ago. The major social apps work well too, so unless you’re a social media pro you won’t need a third-party one. Streaming provider apps are pretty well locked down too, and you’re starting to see where your pay-TV provider (if you have one) is aggregating content so that you don’t need an app for TBS, Starz, or any other channel you subscribe to.
Yes, there’s no doubt that the appscape is changing, but I don’t think the app culture is dead. It’s just slowing and maturing, and hopefully that means we’ll see better and smarter apps in the days to come. Our phones have become the most important information portals in our lives, and it’s time for a whole new generation of apps that bring productivity to a new level. Or, at least find a new kind of animal noise to play at an inappropriate time.