Is the Age of Apps Over?

May 31, 2012


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"In the tradition of all new technology, its application promises men and women more free time, higher levels of understanding, and an incredibly exciting new way to look at and listen to the world."

I've always found the above quote fascinating, as it so well sums up the impact new technologies can have on society. What's even more interesting about this particular quote, however, is how well it demonstrates the fleeting nature of an individual technology's ability to remain new and useful. In case you were wondering, the "it" in the quote above refers to the Pioneer Company's 1980 release of its patented LaserDisc technology.

We all know the laserdisc wasted little time outliving its usefulness, and in the years since Pioneer released its prized product, we have seen the same thing happen again and again to the likes of the cassette, the floppy disc, the CD, etc. Despite dead technologies being well ingrained in our collective memories, many people are still having trouble recognizing that it may be time to put one of our favorite current technologies, the app, to rest.

Maybe it's the fear of seeing our smartphones' screens looking sparse, maybe somewhere in the recesses of our temporal lobes the voice from an old Apple commercial is still telling us "there's an app for that," but one way or another the transition away from native apps and into the era of mobile-optimized websites is moving much slower than it should. Let's not forget that back in 2007 when the folks at Apple made us fall in love with apps, the mobile web was in its infancy. This was before even 3G technology, and thus the power of apps was an easy sell.

In the five years since apps hit the market, the web has come a long way. Mobile-optimized sites, when constructed properly, now offer all the convenience of native apps, without any of the unnecessary complications. So why then is it that apps still hold so much weight in the minds of businesses and their consumers?

A major factor that is keeping apps going strong is, of course, convenience. Users have the ability to access information, games, or media by simply tapping an icon. Apps are designed to be fluid on the small screen and easy to navigate, which makes them appealing when placed against a website that needs to be resized and can be difficult to read. As more and more designers are making a major push towards building mobile-optimized sites, however, mobile sites are being built to mirror the convenience and fluidity of native apps. This gives users the same hassle-free experience apps provide, without having to download or purchase any programs. No downloads also means no excess data use, and no memory being clogged up on users' mobile devices.

Aside from the initial download, any app user can attest to the inconvenience of constant app updates to install. By utilizing a mobile website, a business can simply upload new content or functionality that its users can access with no annoying updates to download. Constantly being bugged with update installations is a major gripe of smartphone users, and because most of those users tend to download many apps but only access a handful on a regular basis, putting people in that position will only irritate them further, and often drives them away.

Mobile sites can also be huge time and money savers for developers. When building an app, developers need to account for the literally thousands of different specific devices the app will be accessed on. This usually means developing individual apps for individual platforms (i.e, Android, Apple, Windows, etc.). Mobile websites on the other hand are accessible across all platforms and browsers, meaning you only need to design and develop one technology. This is why many app developers are beginning to lean toward utilizing HTML5 to create mobile web-based apps that use cloud technology. These mobile web apps work great in conjunction with mobile-optimized websites, but as mobile sites become more powerful and dynamic, web apps too will become less and less necessary.

Nowhere is the gap between apps and websites more blatant than in the world of mobile shopping. Shoppers using mobile devices (especially tablets) are finding the browsing and mobile checkout experience much simpler and more efficient via mobile-optimized sites and major retailers all over the world are seeing huge traffic from mobile websites versus their mobile apps. A big part of this tilt is the issue of mobile payments via apps being extremely tedious. Often app providers require a lengthy verification process for mobile payments, whereas a mobile site can offer a checkout experience that is just as fluid as a desktop site.

The one real advantage that an app still holds over a mobile-optimized website is the ability to push messages to users. This allows for things like location-based offers and mobile advertising. Mobile web developers have not quite perfected the push abilities of mobile sites yet, however, more and more we are seeing location-based services offered through mobile sites, so it seems only a matter of time before even this app advantage disappears.

In terms of pushing mobile ads, apps do allow for a great deal more freedom for advertisers than mobile websites. While these ads may be useful for established companies, startups and companies with a local customer base risk actually pushing users away by inundating them with mobile ads. The better option then is to use mobile websites as a destination for other forms of advertising.

Breaking old habits can be a difficult thing for the general public to do (just ask anyone standing in line at the post office). While apps may provide a warm sense of comfort, they are no longer the technology that will help us take the next step toward complete connectivity. The simple fact is there is a better way to do things, a way that does not involve clunky downloads, does not limit us to one device, and does not restrict the other processes we can perform. Apps have had a good run, and yes, they will surely be hanging around for a while. But I for one won't be surprised when the app takes its rightful place beside the likes of the Betamax and the VHS in the Hall of Dead Technologies.

("Green arrow download" image courtesy of Shutterstock.)<-->