The App Wall

A couple nights ago, a friend sent me a message. “So glad we finally have a way to talk without hanging out.”

He was, of course, kidding. He sent me the message through Yobongo, a new location-based realtime chatting app that launched this week. Earlier in the day, we had a similar conversation on GroupMe. And before that, Beluga. And HeyTell. And Facebook Messages.

But his joke also has a serious subtext. Increasingly, I find myself running into a wall. I’m using too many apps of the same nature for any of them to actually be truly useful. And in fact, I now have too many apps in my life in general. I’ve hit the app wall.

Granted, my usage right now is very extreme. Leading up to SXSW next week, I’m heavily testing out five to ten new apps that people are hoping to launch there. But the fact of the matter is that this is the way things are headed for everyone. It will take the average user longer to hit it, but everyone will eventually hit this app wall.

In this regard, apps are in a way just the new websites. There’s only so many you can visit throughout the day and so you find the ones you like and cycle through those day in and day out. Only on the rare occasion does a new site break into this must-visit cycle.

Technologies like RSS, and now social filters like Twitter have helped ease this monotonous burden. But those don’t exist for apps yet. The closest things we have are push notifications and apps like Boxcar (for notifications) and Chomp (for discovery). And even if there was a streamlined way to use the data in many apps, you’d still have your set group of go-to apps. And there would still be a limit to how many you can use, like websites.

The difference is that I’m not sure many app developers fully understand this just yet. There’s so much exuberance in the app space right now because mobile platforms are exploding with growth. And so anytime one type of app remotely hits, a hundred similar apps pop-up. And they all seem to think they’re in the right position at the right time to hit too.

We saw this a year ago with location apps — this led to a subset of the app wall, check-in fatigue. The truth, of course, is that not all of those have taken off. For every big winner (Foursquare) and even the moderate hits (Gowalla, SCVNGR, etc), there are dozens of others that failed, are failing, or will fail.

Not surprisingly, with Facebook and Google now also firmly in the space, we’re not seeing many pure location check-in services pop-up anymore. Instead, we’re seeing the wave shift elsewhere — currently to photo-sharing apps and group messaging apps. Those areas are red hot right now, and getting a lot of press, so everyone is piling on.

For some, that strategy may work. But it will only work for two or three apps in each space, tops. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Obviously, if you truly believe you have the absolute best app in the space, you must go for it. Put everything into it, and don’t stop until you prove it. There’s definitely some element of luck involved, but in the end, the cream often rises. Facebook wasn’t the first social network, but they knew they would be the best social network.

Of course, Facebook is the exception, not the rule. And I believe that many of the apps we see these days don’t actually think they’re the best. They’re just hoping someone else thinks that. But they won’t.

Here’s a simple test: if you have to copy features from a competitor, you’re not the best. That’s not to say the best don’t copy. Of course they do. But rarely does a startup get to be the best by copying — they do it to stay the best, and because they can (sad, perhaps, but true — and it only works if mixed with even more original innovation; see, again: Facebook).

The features that make a startup the best can’t be copied because they’re not actually features, they only appear to be to competitors. Instead, these “features” are a deeply woven fundamental that is vital to the fabric of the startup that came up with it. To put it another way: these “features” are often something that was dreamed up from the inception of a product, not something that was tacked-on (as it would be by the copying party).

But many playing the app game these days are just mimicking features that work for others. They’re just riding a wave, hoping to hit because others have. Most would never admit that out loud, of course. But I’m sure plenty acknowledge this in their own heads. And if you’re one of those people, the likelihood that the effort is going to be worth your time is very, very small. Infinitesimally small.

It’s a harsh reality. But it is reality.

Instead of building the me-too photo app, or the try-mine group messaging app, why not set out to do something completely different? Why not do something no one else has ever done before? Obviously, that’s much easier said than done — but I’m not sure it’s any harder than trying to compete in a totally over-saturated market.

The mobile space is absolutely the right space to target. New form factors and freedom from the traditional bounds of computing means that there’s so much possibility for what can be done. We’ve really just scratched the surface.

At the same time, it is a harder surface to scratch. Because there are so many apps released each day now, every mobile user is inching closer to the app wall. This means that new apps not only have to be good to get traction, they have to be great.

The app wall means that for every app in, one must go out. That means your app has to be good enough to displace another one. If you’re not designing an app that is meant to be on the homescreen of every iPhone or Android phone out there, you’re not aiming high enough.

Take it from someone who has hit the app wall.

[photos: flickr/awayukin and flickr/Oyvind Solstad]