Why I think mobile apps are going to die in 3-5 years

I was at a panel yesterday talking about the “Appification of India”. This was part of the Social Media Week event.

I made a statement and tried in 2-3 min to clarify what I meant, but did a poor job of it. I thought it is better to detail my thoughts on this blog post.

I believe in 3-5 years mobile “apps” will be dead.

They will be replaced by a set of backend services that will be controlled by the smartphone OS.

As a user the only “UI” you will care about will be your phone UI controlled by the phone or provider. The current set of “apps” will be invoked on demand from the cloud by the OS (or the service layer developed by another 3rd party company).

The current problems with apps are well known. Besides games, which make up the significant part of the downloads, the problems with all other apps are: App discovery and app monetization are a huge problem for developersRemembering which apps to use and managing the apps on your mobile phone are huge pain for users.

I believe Apps get in the way of what users want to do.

You want a car ride from your restaurant to home. Why do you have to remember that the Uber app is the one to use, then search for it on your phone, bring it up, click a few buttons, etc.

Now imagine if you either spoke to your phone or typed on your phone – get me a car to go home.

The phone has a set of pre-determined services which can all handle the request “get a car”. The OS (or service store) on the phone will negotiate with these services to get you the best service (depending on whether you have previously preferred best price, best car, etc.) and confirm that you will have the car in a few minutes. You dont have to remember that you have to open the Uber app etc.

Now at the back end, it will get more interesting if these “services” will bid (auction style) on fulfilling the request.

Which is why I believe the OS wars are done and finished. Android won.

Now let the service management layer wars will begin.

34 thoughts on “Why I think mobile apps are going to die in 3-5 years”

  1. You seem to be talking about something similar to the “Intent Economy” on the mobile with the auction at the back end

  2. Interesting line of thought.

    If I were to compare the app scene with the early 2000s software download aggregators (like, say, Tucows, among others like CNet etc. who were also into other lines of businesses btw), the PC was the front-end for users, while they used a Tucows to search for an ‘app’, which was called ‘software’ or ‘exe’ back then. The ‘app’, when installed in the PC/laptop, then did things that were not natively available in the PC OS.

    Now, replace PC with mobiles. And ‘software’ with apps.

    Even the ‘software’, like apps do two kinds of things to the host where they are installed, if I were to simply the analogy further.
    1. They did something locally (PC example: CCCleaner; Mobile example: a Clock widget)
    2. They did something by involing the connectivity (PC example: display news on a desktop widget; Mobile example: Uber)

    While the latter may definitely move to a cloud model as you predict (makes sense too, like making a mobile more like a Chromebook), don’t you think the local level apps may still stay?

    Also, in the PC example above, the web browser acted a single interface to discover and instal ‘apps’. You have examined a voice-control for the interface in the 3-4 years’ scenario – there may be other interfaces in a mobile too, that could take over the fuddy-duddy ‘app store’ interface to discover and invoke cloud apps?

    1. Karthik,
      I think the “local level apps” are interesting but they will be relegated to what comes as part of the base OS. The number of “must have” apps that are local will be minimal.

  3. In a country with over 1500 languages spoken, is this kind of technology possible. Even English is spoken in as many ways as the number of Indian languages.

  4. Interestingly, I wrote an article about this a few months back. That eventually we will regress to 1 single app that controls ALL other apps. Pretty exciting it will be 🙂

  5. “Now imagine if you either spoke to your phone or typed on your phone – get me a car to go home.”.. Reminds me of IFTT. If “Need Car”, invoke “Uber Service”…

    I agree that it will need to move from “apps on phone” to “apps on cloud” using fetching/discovery/auction services. It more likely is going to be a collection of services or platforms that give access to other apps or services. But I’m not putting my bets on any final state just yet…

  6. NLP would really need to catch up as what you’re suggesting is that the backend service ‘correctly guess’ what we the user really wants. Today we need to explicitly search for an application and then use it according to our needs.

    For the OS layer, there’s the same problem again. How does it know which apps are used by which people so that it uses those pre installed services? Someone might never need a car rental service..

    Also, as Karthik mentioned an analogy with desktop vs web-based software. I believe the same problem of discoverability (excuse me if thats not a word!) still exists. There are so many great software out there that’ll make my life much more easier, but getting to them is a challenge. Atleast in an app-store you know where to go to if you have a specific problem in mind that we want to solve.

    What I do like is the one-app-controls-all-apps model as that solves this problem in another way, i.e., eliminating the download->install->use process. People can just select what they want to use and start using it directly. Why hasn’t this been done already though? (Did Facebook try doing this sometime back??)

  7. Nice article Mukund.
    But then won’t it be more like a car where the OS defines how the UI & UX would be and the user would have less options to choose from?

    Like in the example of using Uber App : The Uber App can automatically hail a cab based on my boarding points and timings.

    I believe that competition in technology brings in more awesome innovation for consumers.

    For me : The war is not yet over & as they say – “Picture abhi bhi baki hain” aka The game is on.

    -Sagar

  8. Mukund…not sure if I agree with you……in your entire blog post….you are talking about “user need”…..but I think you have completely missed out on the “user choice” aspect. I think the key reason why we see so many many apps today (doing the same thing), is that different apps appeal to different users, and provide them with a choice. Letting the OS decide this completely takes away this option from me as a user.

    I do agree that there’ll be good number of people who will find this useful, but I am sure that a lot of people want to choose things they like best, and would not want the OS to decide it for them.

    In all, it may be fair to say that “OS layer” may gain a lot of traction, but it’ll probably be wrong to interpret it as “apps will be dead”. I think both will have a vital part to play in the ecosystem.

    Things like games, productivity apps (if I need skype…i need skype….gtalk won’t do it for me…even though both provide the same set of features) are some which will persist….I am sure there’ll be many more.

    Cheers,
    Kapil

    1. Kapil you dont need Skype. You need to talk / chat to someone. What do you care if they are on skype or Whatsapp or Viber? I can understand games, but I have some thoughts on those as well.

      1. I agree with Kapil,

        To answer your question mukund, water is water, tap water, bisleri, kinley or local branded bottled water. But as a consumer, I choose and having that choice is equivalent to freedom.

        Any OS that forces something onto you will barely succeed.

      2. Mukund, would love to hear your thoughts on games on devices (maybe also what some messaging apps are trying by integrating games and virtual goods within!)

  9. If you frame it as “..mobile app launchers & home screens are going die..” it would be more accurate.

    Funny thing is that this is already possible, at least on Android:

    1. Intents framework: which is kind of like the old MIME type association on Windows adapted to the mobile world. Just need to add a UI to select default app for specific trigger words.

    2. Voice activation. Already there with Google Now & Siri.

    You do need to treat app discovery in the market places & on-device app engagement as different issues, not necessarily related to the problem at hand.

    This opens up an interesting possibility: pay your way into becoming the default handler for a particular action.

  10. “Which is why I believe the OS wars are done and finished. Android won.”
    your entire theory is based on a very simple assumption which might not be true.

  11. Absolutely agree. Apps will be dead, with exception of perhaps games.
    Not sure if Siri is working for folks, but what it did was to make many apps (eg. Yelp) pure web services. Google Glasses does the same. I am betting on Voice, Computer Vision, web intents & NFC based service “invocations”. Apps will have same fate, as .exe had once browser & OS became smarter.

    http://raghvendrasaboo.tumblr.com/post/22321166881/the-cure-for-the-appache elaborates these thoughts.

  12. If apps (and hence the UX) get commoditized, what will be the differentiator? The service?

    What happens when someone has a bad experience? They instruct the OS to “disconnect” that particular service for that particular use case?

    Where does the branding shift to?

    1. All good questions Samudra. All good questions. That’s what we have to think about. The SmartPhone we know today is a dumb phone for a smart person. It needs to get smarter.

  13. I wont completely agree to that.
    One: if the platforms start to recomend stuff then nimber of developers for that particular platforms will decline not all app developers can partner with google and windows.
    Two: there is a limit for such kind of listing/ suggestion,As the apps differ in category and usage.
    Three: This will inhibit innovation in app market as the opens in this ecosystem is what makes all the difference
    Four: If there was a chance for this kind of change then it would have been first visible in PC or Mac market.

    PS: strictly my thoughts on the post.

    1. Don. The number of developers will get bigger since fewer people need to worry about UI and focus more on the service. There need not be any limit, or inhibition of innovation since new services can be onboarded just like apps currently are.

      Just because it did not happen on the PC does not mean it wont happen on the mobile. Mobile is very different, needs refined thinking.

  14. Thanks Mukund, provocative as always.

    I used to run the developer network for an app store company, experiencing first-hand how winning apps eventually find their way into the OS. A classic example from a million years ago: the best-selling VolumeCare app solved Palm OS voice volume issues, but was superseded by improvements to the OS, with its sales dropping to near zero.

    Android’s inclusion of the Intent object in the OS was brilliant, and user intent will likely continue to evolve to more and more fine-grained prediction. This means that the OS can track a user’s needs and desires better and better, making it possible to offer solutions — or just solve stuff — before the user even knows there’s an issue. So, as solutions migrate to the OS, they can be coordinated and delivered transparently as needed.

    While it’s tough to predict the business/monetization scenario for developers (other than to say the carrier and/or OS vendor holds the cards in any deal-making), a services marketplace of some sort makes sense.

  15. I can imagine the vision but see it failing desperately at the helm of how business is done now and even in the future

    Businesses exist on these basics premises

    1. What they are solving, is it something that a consumer wants, does the demand exist and can they tap into it and convert 0 consumers to a number of consumers to turn profits

    2. Demand exists but in some way we can convert somebody else’s customer to ours on basis of anything that we do. It can even be an airlines having their hostesses wearing small clothes. No offence to anybody but thats how it goes.

    3. The most important one amidst all three . We make our customer believe that he made the right choice, we spend money and we innovate to keep that single customer with us, it can be even sending him a cake for his wife’s 65th birthday i.e we even are ready to go personal/individual. For us, he is one individual who helps us send even more cakes and keep us in business, the cycle goes on.

    Now when we put these against the above imagination by Mukund, we as businesses are bound to unilateral way of doing business with a platform and not with humans. We are dealing with algorithms and not actual customers, i believe the platform will also have closed restrictions on who comes onboard as a developer, nobody is going to allow small businesses to screw up a big “Cab Hiring” service for the imaginative yet huge revenue turner platform to go bonkers just because an individual cab service fucked up. This platform then becomes a monopoly and we will never be able to figure out algorithms to justify a right choice since it is actually not made by a consumer but by an OS

    Mukund is right and businesses(platforms) are trying to get consumers fixated with their services. Google is the leader amidst them, they offer an open platform(android) to businesses but yet will compete on the services offered by them.

    All is right unless they start playing dirty or fair (maybe they created a platform for this)

    http://www.benedelman.org/news/021314-1.html , which they have to if they have to go by

    Mukund’s imagination(perhaps he has more to tell but on its face) kills businesses(the big guys get to play the game and the small ones never make the algorithm test)

    & I am sure even if such imagination comes true, consumers will find a way to find what they want, the choice should be theirs and not the platforms.

    ” A platform means a way of showcasing what my business can offer to my consumers and they are free to opt for me or any other business”

    If it does not comply, then its not the open way of doing business

    An imaginative platform will exist in real since businesses always want to be a monopoly but then we believe in people and they will always create options (even android started out like that).

    You can buy em, bury em but you can’t stop them from building!

    Cheers
    Shubh

  16. I agree with you to a certain level about utilitarian apps.

    But if you haven’t realized, Gaming, Messaging and Social Media occupy the majority of a phone utilization, GLOBALLY.

    So, i’m sorry apps will not die. However, Google Now like apps, which make smarter use of CONTEXT, will live take over.

  17. Wow! You have so many folks agreeing – let me differ. Apps already provide a useful service – as Kapil hinted, the user makes a choice of an app from many apps that provide the service. Most of the apps are only UI. So, it really does not matter whether the app is local or on the cloud. It will stay. It also does not matter if the UI is touch, talk whatever.

    The discovery complexity is same – remember the discovery challenge is on the store and not on my phone. If you visualize a real-time marketplace where an app competes to bid for a client request, you are talking about both discovery and marketplace complexity. You are also talking about taking a simple user query and trying to match with a service that may not match up – I can see millions of frustrated users trying to find the tower of london similar to the apple maps blunder.

    Users dont want a car ride home – that is what they say. They want the cleanest, most comfortable, nice looking, nice smelling, safe, cheap car with a pleasing driver to drop them home.

    The central argument in this piece is that brands are not needed – consumers just have a need. I think this is flawed. But I am an interested party in apps!

  18. Mukhund, I was one of those guys on the panel (too many Karthik-s are around so clarifying it here :D). I did not get to respond in the panel to your quip on “apps dying” so here it is:

    Where I agree with you: Apps are as “interaction model” are going away. They are getting replaced with “cards”, “voice based interfaces” and so on. These “interaction models” are likely to be controlled by the OS vendors or the providers of the “service layer”, though I would say we have very little idea on what the interaction model will be 5 years from now. Further, how do these independent “service layers” come on top of the OS? Are they downloadable apps?

    Where I have concerns in your theory: Discovery & Monetization problems are not going away. Your service is either within the “walled garden” of the OS / Service Layer or you are not going to be discovered. How do you do SEO for these new interaction models (like say Google Now or Siri). Same with monetization: the “service layer” guy will take away the 30% like current Apps Stores if it is a paid “service”. And then there will be “freemium” and so on. For a moment, ignore the Uber example where monetization happens outside of the device and think about a “service” like consumption of news & weather Information.

    With this model, I am seriously afraid that “a thousand flowers won’t bloom”. The big boys & the super-brilliant will win and the rest will move away from the ecosystem.

    While I do understand that this is part of life – where the super-brilliant will win and the rest go away, given the context of our panel discussion where we were asked if “Like IT Services / BPO, is India going to be an Apps Epicenter”, this concern is real.

  19. Mukhund, I was one of those guys on the panel (too many Karthik-s are around so clarifying it here :D). I did not get to respond in the panel to your quip on “apps dying” so here it is:

    Where I agree with you: Apps are as “interaction model” are going away. They are getting replaced with “cards”, “voice based interfaces” and so on. These “interaction models” are likely to be controlled by the OS vendors or the providers of the “service layer”, though I would say we have very little idea on what the interaction model will be 5 years from now. Further, how do these independent “service layers” come on top of the OS? Are they downloadable apps?

    Where I have concerns in your theory: Discovery & Monetization problems are not going away. Your service is either within the “walled garden” of the OS / Service Layer or you are not going to be discovered. How do you do SEO for these new interaction models (like say Google Now or Siri). Same with monetization: the “service layer” guy will take away the 30% like current Apps Stores if it is a paid “service”. And then there will be “freemium” and so on. For a moment, ignore the Uber example where monetization happens outside of the device and think about a “service” like consumption of news & weather Information.

    With this model, I am seriously afraid that “a thousand flowers won’t bloom”. The big boys & the super-brilliant will win and the rest will move away from the ecosystem.

    While I do understand that this is part of life – where the super-brilliant will win and the rest go away, given the context of our panel discussion where we were asked if “Like IT Services / BPO, is India going to be an Apps Epicenter”, this concern is real.

  20. Hi Mukund,

    Great foresight and thought provoking statement. You have triggered a wave of predictions and analysis. I have a different take here. While I understand why you are making this statement, I am not sure if I fully agree that the apps would actually die. I’d say it would evolve into a much higher being, nevertheless, a lot more powerful behind the scenes.

    Let me explain. Imagine a pyramid with a bottom, middle and top. The bottom of the pyramid contains apps that are all about empowering the individual in ways to communicate, shop, purchase, consume etc. This is driven by understanding each user (business or consumer) and is largely driven by attributes of the user. For e.g. location attribute. These are the apps that we are exposed to currently. These are “Individual Awareness” apps (for lack of a better word).

    I foresee a evolution of apps from here where the apps shall enable “Situational Awareness”. As a small example, why should the owner of the device set their mobile on vibrate mode or silent mode? Why can’t the app figure out looking up the Outlook calendar app or Google calendar app that I, the owner of this device, am busy. Same while watching a movie in a theater. This may include cognition of the user that shall somehow be manifested in the apps.

    The top of the pyramid in the evolution of apps shall enable “Self awareness”. In the truest analogy with spirituality (including this entire pyramid), self-aware apps shall realize it is part of the universe when connected to the apps in Internet of Things. In this case, not only are the apps situationally aware, but also can communicate with other apps and orchestrate to optimize your world in real time.

    So, how will this work? In these scenarios, I agree with some of the observations made that the interaction and download model may go away. You may be right; the apps may be relegated to the service management layers. I think the apps will not die but continue to evolve to naturally expressable extensions of consumer’s interests and objectives.

    Thanks for the great post.

  21. Interesting! If it goes down that road – won’t there be less creativity? Imagine Google building all the apps themselves for Android. Google building similar apps as Basecamp, Trello etc to replace them for their users. Can they deliver as well as the original creators? Also, some apps are an extension of their web apps. So if Google replaced them on mobile – will they also provide a web version? Will people discontinue using them on the web because Google doesn’t allow them on Android – or will people prefer choice and individuality and stick with the apps? Going with the latter…

  22. I think this is wishful thinking, which neither benefits the user by that much and definitely not the app developers/providers. The following are the reasons why this will not happen.

    1) Any event in reality has several events leading up to them, the don’t occur out of the blue. Interestingly we have explored the option of OS providing various inbuilt features and it has failed miserably. Case in point: Symbian and all the mobile OSes before iOS took birth. You might say, wait, those were local services, this is cloud based, SAAS model. As a user I couldn’t care less how you accomplish stuff. For a user it still looks, feels and acts the same. There is nothing in the existing market/scenario which remotely hints at consolidation of apps/services.

    2) OS is developed by a company or a group of companies (or open sourced). The small group of companies would rather have the ecosystem build itself rather than invest effort, time and money into it build into the OS,and all the services. (same goes for service layer providers).

    3) You are talking about one size fits all. Which leads to lots of bloatware or on the other end needs not fulfilled then we will have to go to apps again.

    4) Personalization: When I buy a phone, its personal property. So I would want to be able to decide what goes on it, and how it is used. So again bloatware and not wanting a few services, wanting a few more (refer bloatware) is not possible, which might not go well given that we already have those abilities and one wouldn’t want to take a step back.

    5) And Internet you say? When you are talking about internet based services, that will not happen unless our the rates for mobile internet fall. We are talking of 10ps/10kB. That’s a far cry from what we pay for internet via other sources. If and when the rates of the mobile internet fall, we would have revolutionary changes in traditional telecom services. Voice/SMS would essentially become useless or relegated to emergency services category.

    These and more suggest that such organized consolidation is not in the offing.

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