The End Is Near for Mobile Apps

In the next three to seven years, I expect most mobile apps to disappear. 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.

Go-Jek took its inspiration from China’s WeChat, the biggest instant messaging app in that country, which has integrated just about every lifestyle service you can think of into their mobile wallet section. Every serious Chinese business has a WeChat official account, where users can access both static information as well as interactive services and transactions. WeChat has also introduced a “mini-program” section, an API-based ecosystem that basically allows third-party developers to create “child apps” within the main WeChat app so users never have to leave WeChat itself. Third-party developers’ apps connect seamlessly to the payment and social functions of a user’s existing WeChat account.

WeChat mobile wallet, official accounts and mini-programs

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.

All Rights Reserved for
Lance Ng

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