Three alternatives to native apps – but discovery remains unsolved

Nobody much likes app stores, discovery is broken, our phones get cluttered, and Apple and Google take a 30% cut. “There must be a better way” is a common refrain.

Intercom.io partially addresses this question with their latest post The end of app stores as we know them, listing three ways we will use apps without downloading them:

  • Embedded in relevant services – apps simply turn up when you need them – e.g. Uber’s integrations with Google Maps and CityMapper
  • Served up by bots running in messaging systems – this is a hot topic right now, and the vision is you will be able to order your Uber, pizza, or anything really simply by asking from within Whatsapp/Snapchat/Telegram/Facebook Messenger etc.
  • As cards within search results – Google is now streaming ads directly within it’s mobile search results, think searching for your flight, the airline’s app coming up as a card, and checking in without leaving the results page

All of these are starting to happen already and will be a lot better for the user than switching between native apps, particularly when information needs to be remembered or copy-pasted.

However, they don’t address the discovery question which is the problem that app stores are solving, albeit badly. CityMapper are unlikely to embed multiple taxi services within their app, it would be too much work and would likely damage the user experience. Similarly, it’s unclear how a Whatsapp user will get a choice of pizzas. Even within search results it seems likely that Google will choose to stream a limited number of ‘app cards’ and serve other options as blue links.

When I picture how the future will pan out I always think about what it will mean for startups. At the moment new services can get discovered by pitching Apple and Google for app store promotions or by buying ads on Facebook and other sites. In the world we’re moving towards I fear discovery will become even less meritocratic and even more based on relationships with the owners of relevant traffic, favouring incumbents at the expense of startups.