Believe it or not, the first appearance of what we can term a computer program was written in 1842 by a woman named Ada Lovelace. 175 years later, the apps we use have come a long way. We've already seen how they can encompass and enrich every aspect of our lives; from productivity to navigation to social interaction to health monitoring to planning and scheduling our existences.
Where can apps possibly go from here? The constraints are only based upon the limitations of our imagination — and the technology behind them, which continues to evolve. Based on my experience as a system administrator and in speaking with Natalie Lambert, vice president of marketing at Sapho, here's a list of 10 predictions for the app realm this year.
1. Social media footprints will expand
You might call this a no-brainer, but social media programs are always upping the ante when it comes to involvement in what you're doing. I took my kids to the Edward M. Kennedy Senate Institute in Boston over Christmas break, checked in via Facebook and was then asked the next day to rate my experience. I was happy to do so, but the regularly prompts to rate where I've been get a bit cumbersome.
I've also noticed as of late that when I take a photograph and post it to Facebook, the location service on my phone identifies my location and prompts me whether I should add it to my photo. This can be either helpful or creepy, depending on your perspective, but it reinforces the fact that social media apps are digging deeper into the activities and whereabouts of our lives. If you're a privacy advocate this is food for thought for 2017.
2. Better collaboration and interaction
2016 heralded an explosion of collaborative features in apps and this trend will only continue. Google Apps (now called G Suite) was among the pioneers of collaboration, of course, and others are following suit. Dropbox introduced easy sharing functionality via the new "Badge" feature. Google Keep makes it easy to share tasks with others, and entire platforms such as Trello and Rally (now CA Technologies) facilitate project workflows and workload assignment. Many apps have tie-ins to social media where you can share information with friends.
Collaboration improves the usefulness of apps and helps serve as a form of "functional advertising" by engaging others (and some might argue increasing dependency on said apps), so expect to see more ways in which these features will appear.
3. More centralization
I'm loathe to admit it, but my long-standing antagonism towards what I call "kitchen sink" apps or web portals is anachronistic. My original objection against them was based on too many half-baked features being crammed into a single interface, making it cluttered, confusing and difficult to support. Now my concerns are largely being eased, especially since subscription models and better customization (such as through dashboards) can make these interfaces easier to learn and navigate.
For instance, my company uses a web portal called ServiceNow which is a veritable Swiss Army Knife of functions; a help desk ticketing system, an asset management solution, a change request platform, a service catalog where we can request equipment and an incident management section are just five examples of what it can do for us. Filters and various layout options allow us to focus on the areas we want to work with and remove irrelevant options.
This tool is one in which I perform much of my work as a system administrator, and having a one-stop interface makes my job easier and helps boost productivity. Expect centralization to play a larger role in 2017 as the benefits and capabilities continue to increase.
4. More subscription models
Speaking of subscription models, they may not always be popular, but they're here to stay. On Cyber Monday I paid about $75 for a year's access to a 1 Tb Dropbox storage plan. That's more for a service than an app (Dropbox is an app, true, but its focus is on providing storage), but the same principle applies overall.
Gone are the days when you could pay a set fee for any given program and then own it for life as opposed to "renting" it via a recurring fee. In some cases you can do both, however. Microsoft Office is a perfect example; you can pay a yearly fee for Microsoft Office 365 which provides access to the programs and services you need (Office 365 Business costs $99 per year). Or you can still buy Office as a standalone product (Office 2016 for Home and Business retails at about $229).
Subscription models make more sense for customers who need the latest and greatest features, and they make more sense for the businesses selling them since they increase engagement and loyalty (as well as revenue and dependency). As long as it's a win for both sides (rather than just the equivalent of a protection racket) I think this is a positive benefit.
5. More offline capabilities
Even though mobile networks are expanding their capabilities and coverage, always-on connectivity remains a pipe dream. I spent a week camping in Bar Harbor, Maine this past summer and there was no mobile data access in our area, period. If you wanted to check Facebook, you had to go into town to get a signal.
Maybe that's not such a big deal, since the whole purpose of getting away from it all is to disconnect, after all. But I could have really used access to Google Maps during some of our mountainous hikes, and it's gratifying to see that it's now possible to download map details to access them while offline (known as "offline areas").
Last September I wrote about a database concept called NoSQL which can bring offline access to mobile apps by storing data locally then synchronizing it with the live server when a device is online again. This kind of useful function is poised to expand in 2017 to improve app functionality.
SEE: Seven mobile trends to look for in 2017 (CNET)
6. More intelligence
Those of us who used Office 97 and 2000 were well-acquainted with the infamous Clippy, an office assistant who would appear and offer assistance based on what you were doing in a program. ("It looks like you're writing a letter. Would you like help?") Anyone who's used a search engine such as Google (and if you're reading this I can almost guarantee you have) has probably also noticed the uncanny ability to interpret typos and hone in on results. And Amazon is quite adept at providing you with suggestions for things you might like based on your purchase history.
My son and I enjoy a mobile app called the Akinator, which involves a cartoon genie that can quickly guess the identity of almost any person or being (real or imaginary) via a series of questions. It's a simple game, but it works with uncanny accuracy that often has me marveling at its deductive capabilities. The exact details of how it works are intentionally vague, but the basic structure depends on using a database with a binary search model or decision tree, in which each answer you provide the genie eliminates a set number of possible characters, increasing it's chances to guess correctly.
If you somehow manage to stump the Akinator, (I managed this only once, using the character of Brady Hawkers from the 1980 made-for-TV film "The Gambler") you can upload details and photographs of the characters involved to help the Akinator learn from the experience and expand its knowledge.
This is a consumer-based example, of course, but it represents the overall trend. As computational power and capacity grows, app intelligence will as well.
7. Greater interaction with AI
Artificial intelligence isn't anything new, of course. We've been relying on Siri (and Cortana) for some time now, but the ante is going to get upped. You could argue that some forms of automation equate to artificial intelligence - the self-driving car, for instance, which TechRepublic recently tested at CES in Las Vegas. We'll see expansions in all related fields.
A core concept here is that of the neural network, which models itself after organic brain functionality to make decisions or solve problems. Self-learning is a key component of this. Working with this model we can implement functions such as speech or language recognition (a universal translator for instance), autonomous machines such as cleaning robots which can perform routine functions based on their specific environment, and of course, better and more comprehensive interaction with computer-based "bots" that can assist us.
CIO Dive says AI is poised to "transform corporate America in 2017" and goes so far as to state: "Companies that do not adapt applied AI will quickly perish or diminish in market size and value."
The final three predictions come from Natalie Lambert, vice president of marketing at Sapho.
8. Simpler, more consumer-driven experiences
"In 2017, employees will continue to shy away from using clunky enterprise software in favor of more simple business apps. Employees will expect the ability to complete simple tasks through micro apps, that enable one-click task completion from anywhere (and enable them to avoid their existing systems altogether). Similar to social media apps, these simple apps will alert employees when something requires their immediate attention through notifications and a personalized feed of actionable activities."
9. Omnichannel communication
"As in-app payments and the ability to share a flight itinerary or dinner reservations through a text message become the norm, people will have a new expectation around how tasks are completed. This idea of not having to leave the platform or app you're in to complete a task or send an update will make its way into the work environment. Employees will want information from various applications delivered in the channel they're already using whether that be a communications channel, a browser, email, or a mobile device. I expect more workplace communication tools, such as the new Facebook Workspace or Microsoft Teams, to become THE place people go to communicate, collaborate, receive information, and complete tasks."
10. System modernization
"Legacy, hard-to-use systems exist everywhere and upgrading them is not an option. Why? Because companies have huge investments in these systems and now have business critical data and processes stuck there. But, we have hit a breaking point - today's employees are saying 'no' to clunky software. They are demanding better ways to access their information and complete tasks. This means adopting more consumer-like functionality (see above), like personalized information feeds and push notifications, that sit on top of existing systems, so employees can get tasks done easily and have the most relevant information to make the best business decisions."
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Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.