The Return Of The Desktop Productivity App

Sunrise. Evernote. Feedly. Wunderlist. Mailbox.*

Those apps are all an integral part of my personal productivity suite, the tools that I use on a day-to-day basis. Without a desktop version, those mobile clients are useful but not transformative. But with multi-device access, they have become difficult to replace.

I’m not the only user who is seeing the tools he uses for personal productivity shift from some weird mix of web and mobile to increasingly connected apps which live on my smartphone, tablet, and now also my desktop. And that’s reshaping the way developers think about how important the desktop is to their distribution strategy.

Web -> Mobile -> Desktop

For many users, the desktop productivity app probably never fully went away. Anyone who uses Microsoft Exchange for email or calendaring, or Microsoft Word as their word processor, can tell you that those applications remain omnipresent in a number of organizations.

What has changed, however, is how users first find and connect with their favorite applications. Increasingly, we’re seeing users adopt apps on their mobile devices before later installing the desktop version.

Interestingly, the rise of these new desktop applications was helped in part by the movement toward cloud-based services as the underlying infrastructure for personal and enterprise productivity tools.

The rise of Google Apps in the enterprise over the last several years meant that many users became reliant on applications that lived in their web browsers for communications with others (Gmail), document creation and collaborations (Google Docs/Drive), and scheduling (Google Calendar). But the openness of those services has also led to an ecosystem of apps that provide more power and flexibility than what can be accomplished in the browser.

“I think we’ve moved back into an app world where both users and developers are more expecting of apps to do tasks instead of browser tabs for everything,” Greylock partner Josh Elman wrote in an email. “In the first case, developers who build for iOS now are much more comfortable building for desktop too — there was a gap from say 99-2009 where most developers were not building client apps at all.”

At the same time we saw increased adoption of web apps powering communications, collaboration, and scheduling, we also saw a growth in the number of productivity apps that have sprung up on mobile devices. For a while, those apps were mostly complementary to the tools people were already using in the browser.

“I don’t think desktop productivity tool usage went away, but it was complemented/partially replaced by mobile productivity tools that leveraged the benefits of mobile connectivity and data,” Homebrew partner Satya Patel writes. “However, all of those mobile-first companies are coming to realize that the key to sticky engagement is being omnipresent and for most knowledge workers that means bridging to the desktop as well. So everything old is new again.”

Stickiness FTW

Mobile app developers are finding that being just on a smartphone isn’t sufficient. Today users are connecting to services like email and calendaring through a variety of devices and screens, and app makers increasingly want to work seamlessly across all of them.

“By owning engagement on both desktop and mobile, startups capture more attention and become more defensible,” Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover writes. “It takes more effort to switch someone from Sunrise when they’re using both the mobile app and desktop app. This is especially important for those creating more ‘commoditized’ apps that can be easily replaced.”

Hoover uses calendaring app Sunrise as one example. Mobile email, calendar, and to-do clients, by themselves, are easily replaceable, but having a consistent experience across multiple screens makes them much less likely to be replaced.

“Certainly when we talk about being in a mobile era, we mean a multi-screen era,” wrote Mailbox founder Gentry Underwood. “We want our information and the experience of the tools we use to span seamlessly across these screens regardless of OS. On our mobiles, well-designed single-purpose apps win because they minimize friction, helping us get what we need quickly while doing whatever else it is we’re doing.”

Mailbox is a perfect example of a mobile-first application going multi-screen. It started on the iPhone but soon after also released an iPad app, knowing that users were also using their tablets for productivity. Now, the company is working on a native desktop application that seamlessly connects with its existing mobile apps.

“With something like mail, efficiency and consistency of experience are really important,” Underwood writes. “A native app lets you have a first-class experience in every way: an icon on the dock with a badge, dedicated UI that’s tailor-fit to the app’s purpose, multiple windows that can interoperate easily, and the speed of an interface that doesn’t have to be delivered over the network via html.”

A New Means Of Distribution

While web apps were great for getting distribution, thanks to having nothing to install or regularly update — all changes to the user interface happened on the backend and were displayed in the browser — they lacked the speed and power of native apps that users were getting used to on their mobile devices.

At the same time, the means of distribution have changed. It used to be that if you wanted a particular desktop application, you would either need to find and download it from the developer’s own website, or possibly through an application aggregator like Prior to that, you might have had to *gasp* go to a brick-and-mortar store to buy a box that included software which you would install from a disc.

But the problem of distribution is being solved through the emergence of desktop app stores that mimic the way users have come to discover and install software on their mobile devices. The best example is Apple’s Mac App Store, which is a key component of the latest builds of OS X. But users can also find apps that look, feel, and react like native apps on the Chrome Web Store.

“Moving downloadable, executable clients into the “App” metaphor through the desktop App Store makes a bunch of differences, mostly in safety, trust, and convenience,” Bloomberg Beta partner Roy Bahat writes. “It also gives all those apps a consistent (if limited, compared to an in-the-wild download) set of permissions.”

Furthermore, the convergence of mobile and desktop connectivity seems like it will only get stronger over time. Both Apple and Google have been working to build cross-platform functionality into their application platforms. For Google, that means seamless connectivity between mobile and web apps, while for Apple that means building “continuity” between its OS X and iOS development platforms.

As Product Hunt’s Hoover notes, “iOS 8 + Maverick’s cross-platform push notifications will open new opportunities to tie together mobile and desktop.”

As connections between desktop, web, and mobile development platforms continue to converge, we’re likely to see even more mobile developers bringing their applications to the desktop. And those apps will continue to get more useful, the more screens that they’re available on.

* Disclosure: Yes, I’m on a beta build of Mailbox for Mac. And yes, it’s pretty damn sweet.