Why the lock screen is the next battleground in mobile

New data suggests we're spending more time with notifications and less time with apps. Here's what that means for the future of smartphones.

Image: iStockphoto/PASHA18

We live in an app-driven world, but new research suggests that might be changing.

In fact, VisionMobile's latest report on Android usage points to an increasingly powerful mobile experience that never leaves the lock screen. As such, mobile developers hoping to connect with users need to go all-in on new models of engagement, with notifications playing an increasingly pivotal role.

A future beyond apps

Even before Apple trademarked the phrase "There's an app for that," mobile was very obviously veering away from the web and toward apps. This was partly a matter of performance--the mobile web was substandard compared to the desktop. It was also a matter of convenience as it was simply easier to engage users in a self-contained environment.

But, based on data from VisionMobile and Celltick, with over 150 million users of its lockscreen products, the app-first world is looking pretty porous.

Indeed, more and more we're glancing at our phones, rather than unlocking them to dive deep into an app. Take a look at the data in the following graphic:

Image: VisionMobile/Celltick

The question is 'Why?'

We don't make time for apps

Just as the mobile web was displaced by the convenience of apps, it may be that apps are giving way to the speed and efficiency of notifications. Forrester analyst Ted Schadler insists that overly focusing on "what app should I build" is "a path to failure."

Instead, he notes, the consumer's expectation is "that I can get what I want in my immediate context and moments of need."

Notice that this isn't about what developers want, which was often the leading argument for HTML5 ("We have web developers on staff and want to turn them into mobile developers" and/or "We want to build for the web and not for disparate platforms like Android and iOS"). As Andreessen Horowitz's Benedict Evans posits, "Any argument that apps will go away (this time) needs to start from user behaviour, not engineering preference."

Instead, this shift to glanceable "moments" on the lock screen is all about satisfying consumers' desires to get just enough information, just in time.

Death to web and apps?

Of course, this won't necessarily mean the death of the web. Not at all. Instead, as Drupal founder Dries Buytaert suggests, we'll simply see the web become the critical infrastructure sitting behind an increasingly push-based user experience:

The current Web is "pull-based," meaning we visit websites or download mobile applications. The future of the Web is "push-based," meaning the Web will be coming to us. In the next 10 years, we will witness a transformation from a pull-based Web to a push-based Web. When this "Big Reverse" is complete, the Web will disappear into the background much like our electricity or water supply.

Nor will it spell the end of apps, despite what Intercom executive Paul Adams posits:

In a world where notifications are full experiences in and of themselves, the screen of app icons makes less and less sense. Apps as destinations makes less and less sense. Why open the Facebook app when you can get the content as a notification and take action--like something, comment on something--right there at the notification or OS level.

Unstated in all this is that to get the notification you must first have the app (or, at least, a place in Google or Apple's wallet apps). As such, we're likely to see a shift of light engagement to notifications, with apps reserved for more immersive experiences.

For developers, this means that it's no longer enough to build an app and think their job is done. An app (or optimized mobile web experience) is simply the beginning of a mobile customer experience. With deep engagement the goal, a host of different strategies--including increasingly rich notifications--must become part of every company's mobile development strategy.

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