Why the future of apps is 'Use and Throw'

There have been debates ad infinitum on the future of ‘apps’. Just in the last few years, there have been arguments ranging from ‘The web will take over the scheme of things in a few years’ to ‘Native apps have won,’ to ‘Who is going to own the home screen?’

And now, the debates are all about a few companies owning a suite of apps, leaving the other developers out. There are comparisons with the PC world, and talks of a repeat of what happened with Windows and Office Suite. The only difference is that we have two major OSs and four or five app developers here, instead of just one company owning both the OS and the apps on it.

While all these discussions are valid, they all primarily talk about the 'core' apps that people would need to or want to use for significantly long periods of time. But what about the apps that can be used just once, or at best a few times? Let’s call them 'Use andThrow' apps.

On the premise that an app is just an "encapsulation of a service", would there not be more and more apps that are ephemeral in nature? Each person will have a couple of productivity tools depending on his/her profession, a couple of social / messaging / email services, and a couple of games that they’d want to occupy their home screen. But what about an app that helps you with details/directions to places of interest in a new city that you are visiting as a tourist (and will visit only once in your life)? How about an app that helps you find if a train is running on time or late? How about apps to hail a cab or reserve a table or order a meal (assuming you do these a few times in a year and not everyday)? Do you want them on your home screen? Should such apps even aim for that kind of visibility and constant presence?

I tried to argue against this in 2 ways but had some answers too:

  • These sorts of tasks can be achieved just using the web; there’s no need for an app. So the question of use and throw does not exist. Things needed over sustained periods become apps; the rest are just websites. But you don’t know which browser the user uses, and how good the connectivity he has is. If he had an app, he would rely less and less on the speed of connection. For example, in the case of the train status app, I used the "m.runningstatus.in' site to track a train on my way to the station once. At times during the commute, I had periods of no connectivity and the browser went to 'page cannot be displayed'. There was no auto-refresh when connectivity resumed. I had to manually refresh to get it working again. In contrast, an app would have resumed on its own again.
  • Why would these be use & throw? Personally, I could say I would keep all these apps permanently in my phone. But unless you’re a cab driver who regularly picks people up from the railway station, you would not need the railway app, for example, that often.

More examples of one time apps are new editions of magazines, or a Wiki Search for a particular topic.

And 'A few times a year apps': for airports/airlines, tax filing, and insurance payment. Who wants such apps on their phones? I prefer to disable them if I am allowed.

If you were confident that the App Store would show you the app that best suits your needs when you search (and quickly, at that), you would pick the latest app whenever you need one, right? Why would you have an old app that may/may not work (or may/ may not be the best in class now) and use up your phone memory and battery on it?

Just like one does not bookmark every single site on a browser, and just Googles then when necessary, one could do the same with apps. Granted, the App Store search is not very efficient now. Once it becomes so, though, the App Store may well become the Google of its time. Recently, in a panel discussion, I heard that the younger generation uses YouTube as their primary search engine. The App Store would similarly be the first search for adults.

This answers another interesting question I think about frequently - for a brand, is an app necessary, or is it just enough to have a website? Because while discovery and search need a website, loyalty needs apps. But apps will be use and throw in the future, as discussed above. So where does 'loyalty' come in?

Let me explain. As a customer, you want a use and throw app. As a brand, you want to try and see if the app can make someone a loyal customer. If we take the example of a service center app, like Trident Hyundai; Trident Hyundai would want to ensure that the customer visits every time. So that is the dialectic between user perspectives and brand perspectives.

So for a developer that does not want to compete with the four or five big players, an important avenue for you is use and throw apps. Think of all the scenarios for which you’d want to use an app just once, and then discard it because it becomes immediately irrelevant. Make such apps. Several such apps already exist so this is not entirely new. If this is your mindset, you can focus on creating more apps instead of getting fixated on developing a few apps in an attempt to compete with the big boys.

For app developers into 'contract development', this is an opportunity to make more and brands jump into the app bandwagon. For brands, it is a question of a quick app, rather than creating an 'ultimate' app that involves spending a lot of money. Start small. Let your app look use and throw to the user, and then slowly upgrade him to being a loyal customer. For the most loyal, you may even end up having a full-service app, depending on what your brand is.

This will mean that even your neighbourhood taxi service or mom & pop store would have an app. Thousands and thousands of local apps will come into App Stores. With the emergence of DIY tools, tech savvy brands can create apps for themselves, or at least pay development companies less. One major problem is the trust deficit and information asymmetry in the relationship between small brands and app developers. If these gaps can be bridged, more and more local apps are bound to come out. A marketplace for app development might be the answer.

So let’s settle the debate here. Apps are needed since they are more convenient than a browser. However, it should be easier to search for, use, and discard apps than it is now. While we leave it to the OS makers & App Store owners, as developers and brands, let’s try to churn out more and more apps. We shouldn’t be fixated about its presence on the user's home screen, though.

Guest Author: Karthik Srinivasan