App Fatigue

In the 1980s and 1990s it was all about shrink-wrapped software … ah, those were the days. Software was sold on big and small pieces of plastic and shiny CDs. You would walk into your favorite software store (J&R) and browse the endless rows of eye-candy (boxed software).

The 1990s brought in the wave of early Internet to the consumer. The Internet provided a new means for accessing software. You could finally download bits and pieces. But it wasn’t until early 2000 that the average Internet consumer understood its power and was able to realize its potential.

Fast-forward another 10 years and we have the current movement: The adoption of smartphones, which has ushered in, once again, the development of client-side applications (apps).

Apps have been the new software gold rush. Over the last seven years we’ve seen the markets saturated with all manner of games, commerce, social media and literally everything in between. There is truly an app for everything and everyone.

Like all gold rushes, they must come to an end. It is clear that everyone close to technology is suffering from what the market is calling “app fatigue.” If it wasn’t already hard enough to differentiate your app from the millions of others in the app store, it’s now becoming even harder. Does anyone want to use my app? Maybe, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.

At a high level, smartphones have enabled businesses to hijack our daily lives with real-time notifications. Apps have become the new crack, predictably followed by endless anxiety. As phone manufacturers (Apple and Google) release new versions of their operating systems, engineers and entrepreneurs have the ability to dig deeper and deeper into the user’s daily life. The slow rollout of these new operating systems over the years has led to a very high tolerance of daily interruptions. But the end user is getting smarter. The backlash for being over-notified is happening — users are beginning to opt out.

Let’s talk about the specifics for a minute. From a technology perspective, apps can be painful to build and maintain. You have to deal with the approval overlords who can be as efficient as airport security. Furthermore, bug fixing, new feature rollouts and version control is uncomfortably slow compared with that of traditional server-side development. App fatigue is as much an issue with the consumer as it is with the developer.

Apps have become the new crack, predictably followed by endless anxiety.

From a consumer perspective, there are just too many apps. New apps, by in large, are not providing nearly enough value for consumers to come back, and most simply replicate existing experiences with a story of a better design. Apps are not an order of magnitude better than their predecessor; thus, adoption drops off as quickly as it started.

So, consumers are tired of apps. Technologists are tired of building similar apps. Do we really need more apps? I would argue we need different software, apps included. The major players (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) are still very much leading the show. While phones have made new ideas available, the longevity of these new apps and businesses is still unknown. What’s next?

Much of the recent software that has shown a meaningful impact have two aspects in common: large existing data sets and automation. The idea of software beginning to work for you is the next major step, and it is where savvy entrepreneurs and investors are putting their time and money. I’m not really referring to AI, but a more gigantic step toward software that’s not just read and write.

For as long as we can remember, software as a whole (but especially consumer software) has been read and write only. Meaning, the computer is there when you’re ready to work, but not in your absence.

Consumers are beginning to see the next cycle with software like Siri, Google Now, Slack and Nest, to name a few. You ask the software to do something for you and it begins to learn and won’t stop unless you ask it to.

For instance, you buy a plane ticket and Gmail looks at your email and automatically adds it to your calendar. The next time you open Google Maps, it has the departing airport on the map with directions and traffic. On your way to the airport, Google Maps, in real-time, offers an alternate route based on real-time traffic.

Similarly, using a workflow tool like Slack, you are enabled to build personalized automated workflow directly into the application using a wealth of third-party plug-ins. You can easily push your most recent code to Git and, from there, directly to Heroku. These type of BOTS provide a wealth of extensibility and a way for the software to ease into your business workflow, instead of the other way around.

Building apps for the sake of apps has run out of steam.

There are social automation tools like Knowmore that sit on top of Twitter and, once activated, automatically remove hate, homophobic, terror and all other negative-related language you don’t want to see. Speaking of social, Facebook Messenger’s new app “Hello” let’s you decide how you want to take phone calls from Facebook friends. You can mute specific “friends,” and see information on users while they’re calling to choose how you want to interact with the upcoming call.

What this means is that entrepreneurs should be thinking in new ways. How can I utilize an existing data set to create sophisticated automation? Not, let me try to create a whole new data set using dated methodology.

Server-side development is coming back in an altered fashion. Smaller applications with large data sets, living on servers, will evolve the Internet into more of a living, breathing organism, learning as it goes to better suit your needs as a consumer using its growing data. Software is far from fatigued, but apps as we know them today are being forced to iterate as consumers are impatient with the more of the same.

Here’s the hard truth: Building apps for the sake of apps has run out of steam. Data really is king. Without it, you’re playing the lottery versus Blackjack. Developers and entrepreneurs are better served thinking about how automation on top of existing data sets can transform new businesses, as opposed to adding a new layer of notifications. More of the same will leave you riding the same single-speed bike and talking over the same overpriced coffee; but once again, no users.