Are mobile apps dead?

Are mobile apps dead?

Are mobile apps dead?

Firstly, I’m sorry for the rather dramatic headline. I was struggling to find a concise headline for this article! Anyway, something of a recurring conversation revolves around the future of mobile apps and the app store model. Wind back the clock 10 years and it seemed everyone was getting a mobile app built, they needed a mobile app for their business.

But is that still the case?

N.B when I refer to a ‘mobile app’, I am referring to an app that you install from an app store – also known as a native app.

A quick walk down memory lane

It’s the late noughties, most organisations have a website. Smartphones have just really taken off and everyone is talking about two things – the need to have a mobile website, or a mobile app. Some are even suggesting that a mobile presence is more important than a web one.

Some start to develop mobile websites (with some styling them to look like apps). But web browsers on smartphones are pretty terrible and the experience is ‘passable’ at best. Following the lead of companies like Facebook, the consensus is that mobile apps are the way to go, providing you can afford it. The advantages are obvious; better and more responsive user interfaces, having your icon on someone’s home screen, communicating via push notifications and hardware specific features like GPS.

But in the years that followed, app stores became crowded, app development got more complicated (with the introduction of new devices and requirements), costs for mobile apps actually rose, and Apple started to take a stand against templated apps (and anything they deem to be a threat to their business model). ‘App fatigue’ became a term as users grew tired of installing lots of apps on their smartphones.

Over the same time period, web technologies improved massively. New standards emerged and mobile browsers get far better. Responsive websites became mainstream and a new term the ‘PWA – Progressive Web App’ emerged. People started to realise that mobile web can deliver an excellent user experience for most use cases. Starbucks announced the retirement of its mobile apps and a subsequent move to Progressive Web Apps.

The pendulum appears to have swung the other way…

So, where does that leave us?

Let me say this…I don’t think that mobile apps are ‘dead’. The Apple and Google app stores still make vast amounts of money from the excellent apps that are available. Certain requirements such as intensive computations, games, hardware specific functionality (e.g. device movements, health data etc) are still best suited to a mobile app, in my opinion.

What’s interesting is how the picture looks for everyone else. The recruiter who wants to get their jobs in the hands of candidates, the housing association who wants to help tenants manage their account on their phone, the charity who wants to promote its work and take mobile payments, the customer loyalty company that wants to stream special offers, the company who wants to give their employees access to company data on the move. These kinds of cases make up a huge proportion of potential apps.

For these cases, I believe that the mobile app may not be the best way forward – unless there is a fairly large budget involved. There are several reasons behind my statement, from both sides of the fence. From the mobile app side:

  • Mobile app development is expensive. Not only must you build for two codebases (granted there are technologies that can help here), but you also need to optimise for a vast array of devices and configurations. Small screens, large screens, ultra-high-resolution screens, portrait mode, landscape mode, dark mode – the list goes on.
  • Apple (in particular) has ruffled several feathers by insisting on changes to apps that threaten its business model, or do not generate Apple enough money. This began with a huge legal case between Apple and Epic Games when Epic Games refused to use Apple’s payment systems (which would grant Apple a 30% slice of the pie). Quickly followed was a dispute with WordPress when WordPress did not include the option to buy paid add-ons through its mobile app. Regardless of your views on such cases, the fact is simple. Your business is at the mercy of a third-party. One that changes the rules and is not always consistent. You won’t be able to control your own destiny through the app store – just ask the many business owners who have had their apps removed at huge detriment to their company.

From the Progressive Web App side:

  • PWAs look good right now. I use several, including Starbucks and they’ve been slick, responsive and reliable.
  • PWAs are a fraction of the cost as they only have to be developed once. These technologies work across codebases and respond well to different screens and configurations.
  • PWAs are based on web technologies, meaning you don’t need to employ specialist mobile app developers and use a whole new host of technologies. You can keep your technology footprint smaller, faster, leaner and cheaper.
  • Areas where mobile websites once faltered have been addressed. Offline caching is now available, so an internet connection is not always required for using a PWA. It’s also possible to send push notifications and in some cases to add PWAs to the users’ home screen.

In summary

As is always the case, everyone will have their own opinion. Whether you air towards a PWA or not, I definitely think they are worth exploring. The business case is compelling, lower costs and better compatibility. Of course, your audience will play a factor, as will the nature of your app. One thing that is certain right now is that web technologies are ruling the roost and you’d not be wise to automatically discount them.