Introduction and blame the browser
What would a 'world beyond apps' be like? It's hard to imagine using a smartphone that doesn't have any apps, and yet there has been talk of the 'post-app era' for some time. Cue futuristic ways of interacting with computers and data, with virtual assistants and natural language processing at the forefront.
However, few think that apps are going to disappear completely, only that the way we interact with them will change. "In the near-term we will see a demise of individual apps at the front-end, with instant messaging and social media interfaces used as a gateway into technologies," says Claus Jepsen, Chief Architect at business software company Unit4.
So will we still be physically opening apps in a few years? Probably not, but that trend started when push notifications appeared on our phones long ago. Since then, apps have added always-on functionality, background monitoring, interactive notifications, integration with wearables, and automatic updates.
Now get ready to watch as apps are consumed within contextually-aware virtual assistants like Siri – and almost completely disappear.
Apps on the rise… and fall
Ever since the creation of the smartphone, the App Store has been a battleground between Apple and Android. So who won? Although apps in Apple's App Store make the most money, they accounted for just 15% of all apps downloaded in 2015. IDC reports that Apple's share fell 8% from the previous year – quite a tumble, and largely down to the massive volume of Android-based phones being sold around the globe.
"While IDC forecasts that mobile app installs and direct revenues will continue to grow over the coming years, it also expects that growth to slow considerably," says Michael Allen, Solutions VP at application performance management software company Dynatrace. "For businesses, this offers a wake-up call that the mobile race is starting to reach its climax – consumers are reaching app saturation, and they're now looking for quality over quantity."
That's borne out by Dynatrace's own research, which found that nearly half (47%) of people will only give an app three seconds to load before they give up and go elsewhere, while nearly a third (32%) will never try it again if it doesn't work the first time.
Blame the browser?
It's not always the apps' fault – some apps lose their shine over time. Remember that flashlight app on your phone? Now it's built into the phone itself. There are speciality camera apps, polished email apps and countless pointless brand apps, but few of them add much to what your phone can already do. Besides, the mobile web is getting more app-like every day.
"It really depends on what we mean by an app," says Jamie Turner, CEO of address verification and data quality services company PCA Predict. "Many apps are little more than website bookmarks pointing to a mini-site that looks and feels like something that's native."
Turner thinks that we only have native apps because they operate without the performance and security limitations of a browser. "This is changing fast with significant work being placed into newer browser technology that feels as fast as native apps and more sensible security models," he adds.
However, even slick mobile websites can't get round the inherent problem with apps; their scope is very limited. Spotify aside (its 30 million tracks make this service the de facto web-based music library), how many apps do anything other than give you access to a walled garden of content?
Nobody wants to use the Uber or Lyft apps specifically, they want to get a ride. It's the same with Netflix. Rather than go hunting for a particular movie and failing to find it, wouldn't it be easier if your phone just told you where to find that movie?
Goodbye apps, hello smart agents
We've fallen out of love with apps, and that's not going to change. Gartner predicts that by 2020, smart agents will facilitate 40% of mobile interactions, and that 'post-app era' will begin to dominate. For 'smart agent', read virtual private assistants like Google Now, Cortana, Siri and Alexa, each stuffed with so-called 'learning algorithms' and artificial intelligence.
These agents will be the principal way that we navigate information. "No longer will you have to load a specific application," says Gartner. "The algorithms on the systems that you touch will understand your needs and serve you the correct data in context." The future is algorithms, not apps.
App aggregation and the post-app future
The services that apps offer are already being consumed en masse by virtual private assistants. "Siri is already an example of aggregation as it enables the user to perform multiple tasks such as checking the weather, searching online, sending an email, scheduling a meeting, and many other things," says Magnus Jern, President of mobile enterprise tech firm DMI International, who thinks we're on the cusp of sophisticated aggregation services.
"Facebook will do it with Messenger and new third-party services' APIs for chatbots etc, and WeChat and Line already do this," he says of instant messaging apps that are fast becoming 'smart agent' platforms themselves. But will aggregation services actually replace apps? "Not in the short-term, because depending on the use case, apps will still provide a better experience for a lot of our daily tasks," says Jern. "Instead the aggregation services will integrate with the standalone apps."
However, that does suggest that the most popular, wealthy and ambitious apps – such as Facebook and WeChat – are at least as well positioned as OS developers Apple and Google to create the dominant new virtual assistant platforms.
The spoken word
How we interact with the services currently offered by apps will change, too. The smart money is on voice. "Interaction models are changing," says Frank Palermo, Executive VP for Global Digital Solutions at IT services company VirtusaPolaris, who thinks that with advances in AI-powered virtual assistants, voice will soon be at the centre of the user experience. A supercharged, more conversational Siri (and other assistants) will effectively make individual apps redundant.
"You no longer need to click on your phone and open an app," adds Palermo, "it is a much more immersive experience where you are interacting with your device in a more conversational way – it literally becomes your pocket PA."
Is natural language good enough?
Not quite yet. Siri is getting cleverer, certainly, but doesn't understand everything it's told. Ditto Nuance's Dragon Dictation; every year it gets less muddled and more accurate. "We are very close to having natural language being the primary means of interacting with the software," thinks Jepsen, who predicts a 'conversational experience'.
"Rather than navigate screens, tools and clunky interfaces, employees will be able to type or say 'show me my payslip' or 'complete my expenses'," says Jepsen, whose Unit4 company has created a digital assistant for workplaces called Wanda that inserts itself into existing apps. "We don't need to build our own screens or apps to accommodate this, we can use somebody else's, like Skype for Business, Twitter, or Facebook," he adds. "Everything will become easier, it will become natural."
The post-app future
Apps are on the watch-list, and are already being phased out. That's no surprise to some, who think they're inherently unnatural. "Clicking through buttons is not natural human behaviour," says Palermo, who believes we're moving towards a more immersive and ambient world, where it's possible for people to have a natural discussion with their surroundings.
"We won't need to type, we will just speak and our device will present the information we need in a visual way – perhaps by combining with virtual reality to help us visualise our answers," adds Palermo. Either way, the era where smartphone users launched apps individually is soon going to seem archaic.