Will device and OS proliferation break the app economy?

By October 14, 2015Apple, Google, Mobile

Jerry Bowerman wrote an interesting article on Techcrunch yesterday arguing that device and OS proliferation is driving the cost of supporting apps up to unsustainable levels.

The evidence cited is that corporate departments spend $40bn per year on apps, more than twice consumer spend, and that they are reaching aggressively for “create once, run anywhere” solutions.

If apps aren’t the future, you might be wondering, what’s the alternative?

Jerry says:

a future where something like “on-demand apps,” as I call them, work on every device and can be centrally managed by the corporation without going through a proprietary app store

 

My issue with this argument is that the problem statement is much stronger than the solution. I see our companies struggling with the costs of maintaining Android and iOS apps, a problem made worse by the app store gatekeepers demanding platform specific functionality or design in return for featuring, so I buy into that. I also crave a world in which distribution is more meritocratic, as it was on the open web, so I would love to see Apple’s AppsStore and Google Play lose their duopoloy. Finally – app based shopping isn’t great, in general, for ecommerce and marketplace startups and a resurgence of the mobile web would help the startup ecosystem.

But identifying problems only gets us so far. The app economy is only going to break if there’s something better to replace it. Jeremy points to corporations using HTML5 and thin native app wrappers when they need direct access to a hardware sensor, but we’ve been talking about that for years and I see no sign of HTML5 apps making inroads into the consumer space. In fact I think the trend is the other way.

Perhaps where apps are going next, and this is certainly what Apple and Google hope, is to disappear into the OS. That’s what’s going on with Google Now On Tap and Apple’s swipe left from the home screen (see this post from Benedict Evans for more details). However, whilst these developments are exciting from a consumer convenience point of view I’m not sure that they will help app developers reduce their overheads or address the discover problems I list.

I remain hopeful that open standards will triumph in the end, but I’m no longer sure that they will.

As an aside, whilst half of Jeremy’s post is about open standards on mobile, the other half is about what it takes to be a visionary. I love his comment on timing:

Both men [George Lucas and Ken Williams] are wicked smart and naturally curious, two characteristics often attributed to visionaries. What people often miss, however, is that they are both brilliant businessmen. They understand you can have too much vision, seeing a far-off future that won’t come true within the right time frame. As an entrepreneur, the challenge is funding from where you are today until enough customers agree with your vision that they pay for your expenses. You need to know where you are on the vision timeline.