Mobility

No one downloads apps anymore: True or false?

Walt Mossberg recently called for the end of the app era. However, other mobile data points seem to contradict that claim.

Image: iStockphoto/LDProd

Technology columnist Walt Mossberg thinks we've reached "peak app," arguing that: "Just as there are too many confusing, often redundant choices on the breakfast cereal shelves at the grocery store, there are too many duplicative and puzzling choices in the Apple and Google Play app stores." Given the plethora of (often bad) choices, we, as consumers, have given up on apps.

Tune, a mobile marketing company, begs to differ, showing in a new report that 75% of American consumers continue to install at least one app per month.

The reality is that both Mossberg and Tune are correct. We've both reached "peak app" and yet the app continues to fill an essential part of the mobile experience, and will for a long time.

Advantage: Mossberg

Apps have been on the decline since the day Apple first trademarked the phrase, "There's an app for that." Despite ever-increasing consumer adoption of smartphones, the reason to have an app for this or that didn't go up. If anything, it declined.

SEE Why an app-focused strategy could lead to mobile failure

Part of this stems from a mobile web experience that keeps getting better. Do I really need a currency conversion app when a quick Google search on my phone returns the answer even faster, in a format that is easy to consume? Do I want to download that mortgage calculator app when all I want is to run two or three payment scenarios, something more easily yielded by the web?

Part of it, however, is that apps have spoiled us for choice, as Mossberg points out:

[T]here are way too many bad, mediocre, or me-too apps. The good ones are too hard to find. And the novelty and joy of suddenly having access to millions of bits of interesting software has worn off for me and for many other people. While Apple now claims two million apps in the App Store, as long as two years ago analysts were reporting that most smartphone users didn't download even a single app in an average month.

Advantage: Tune

This, however, is where Tune steps in. Pulling data from 74 million US devices, Tune discovered that the average US consumer downloads 1.3 apps per month per device, or 2.31 apps per user per month (assuming that most of these smartphone owners also own a tablet or other mobile device).

Of course, 1.3 or 2.3 app downloads per month is hardly worth celebrating, as such numbers indicate a dramatic slowing in app interest. True, we should expect slower growth in app downloads in an already saturated market, but that's the point: There are ever fewer "must have" apps out there.

And yet, apps will persist.

Defining your own 'peak app'

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Though the nature of apps will change over time—indeed, they already have—it's very likely that we'll rely on apps for essential services for a long, long time. An app, as I've explained before, is the perfect "bottom-of-the-funnel" experience to offer a brand's most committed customers. For some retailers, this is simply a means to deliver weekly coupons. For sports franchises, it may serve as a way to deliver real-time statistics and in-park amenities.

But whatever the business, apps can provide a tier-one experience for tier-one customers.

Mobile web, by contrast, should be designed to capture the widest possible swath of potential customers. A new(ish) development is the progressive web app, which Google's Alex Russell defines as "websites that took all the right vitamins." They're not hybrid web apps, however, because they don't masquerade as native apps in the different app stores. Instead, Russell notes,

Users don't have to make a heavyweight choice up-front and don't implicitly sign up for something dangerous just by clicking on a link. Sites that want to send you notifications or be on your home screen have to earn that right over time as you use them more and more. They progressively become "apps."

A good example of a progressive web app is Flipboard. Just navigate to its URL on your phone and you'll get a sense of what a browser-based app experience can be.

SEE: Your app strategy is probably going to fail. Here's how to fix it

Regardless of whether apps look more like the web or the web looks more like apps, the future of mobile is very much an "all of the above" experience. As such, don't be quick to dump your company's app, or to bet the company's future on it. Consumers keep downloading and using apps, and that's going to keep happening for a long, long time.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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