The app is dead… and you killed it

Except for some core apps, people seem to be downloading fewer, and using them less

By Nick Dyer
Tue, 2016-11-29 10:21

In 2008, I remember designing a spin-the-bottle iPhone app. It followed the basic rules of the classic junior high game, except that you couldn’t actually spin the bottle, at least not by flicking the screen, as you would expect. You had to spin the whole phone for the game to work. So essentially the app was a just picture of a bottle. It was likely the worst app ever, but at this point in history, it didn’t matter. This was circa 2008, during the dawn of the gold rush of the app boom. Apple had just opened up the iPhone to third-party developers and the market was exploding. With dollars to spend and 7.5 GB to fill, users eagerly perused the new Apple App Store for anything that would turn their phone into extensions of themselves…or a lightsaber.

This was supposed to be the beginning of a new economy. A new industry that would — by 2016 — create well over two million mobile apps aimed to accomplish thousands of tasks. The problem is, today nobody wants to download them. Last year, according to Business Insider, downloads from the top 15 developers fell 20%, and according to data released by comScore, the average American smartphone user now downloads zero apps a month.

Certainly these numbers don’t indicate people aren’t interested in apps, it just suggests that we have all the apps we need. It also suggests we don’t need that many apps to begin with — at least not as many as the market is trying to provide for us. This oversaturation is creating problems for developers, CIOs and entrepreneurs who are working in an environment where even the best apps are being ignored.

A report from Verge recently followed the mid-size development company, Pixite, through these challenges of the app economy. In 2013 and 2014, Pixite saw tremendous success creating photo-editing and design apps and selling them through the app store. Their products were well regarded and often praised by Apple in its year-end design awards. But in the past few years, Pixite has struggled to stay visible in a crowded app market, and has nowhere near the resources to advertise itself out of the crowd. As Verge puts it, “the App Store’s middle class is small and shrinking.”

It’s in vogue for business leaders to throw an app at a problem. Apps are easy to talk about, relatively inexpensive to build, and create an appearance of progress and innovation that always sounds good in reports to shareholders. The issue is, if you build it, they won’t necessarily come. Not unless you’re Snapchat, Uber, or have a half-a-billion-dollar marketing budget. Getting a user to first become aware of your app, and then convincing them to give up 280 MB of their very valuable storage space to download it, can be immensely expensive, even for modest downloads. Supercell, the developer of Clash of Clans, reported revenue of $1.7 billion in 2014, but spent $440 million on marketing.

It’s incredibly difficult to acquire downloads today. Even if you get people to use your app, most people don’t even use the apps they download. Based on data from Localytics, a quarter of all apps are deleted after one use, and the number of apps that are opened more than 11 times is roughly 34%.

There are times when people are more likely to download apps. Times such as, when a person buys a device in a new category (think Apple TV or AppleWatch), purchases a new product that can be enhanced by an app (think IoT) or signs up for a new service where someone can personally direct you to an accompanying app.

A solution is to zig when everyone zags. Instead of fighting for a share of the app market, find a new way to achieve your goal. A good example of this is the local startup PubPass — which I cofounded. In 2013, PubPass looked to create loyalty programs for bars and restaurants by building a platform where users could receive free product (beer), just by trying out a new location in the program. The concept naturally lent itself to a mobile app, but after looking at the resources we would need to become visible, we did something crazy: We printed it on paper, like a passport. We discovered that not only did we save resources, but a physical product in a very digital world would become a novelty, and highly giftable. PubPass is a success because we made it analog. Analog is unique. Analog is cool. Except maybe when it accidentally goes through the wash.

This may be part of an overall digital fatigue. As technology has given us every opportunity to do more, we’re, in tandem, looking for ways to feel OK with doing less. This phenomenon can be attributed to the reemergence of analog products such as vinyl records, “dumb phones” and, most notably, in the enduring popularity of printed books.

It’s important to understand that just because “there’s an app for that,” it doesn’t mean people will want it. The core group of apps people have gravitated to has, so far, satisfied their needs, removing any need to discover new apps. From time to time, there will be a new killer app that will prompt people to rediscover that App Store button in their phone. But unless you have the next Pokémon Go, or a half-billion-dollar advertising budget, it’s probably wise to find a more creative solution, like printing it on paper. 


Nick Dyer is the co-founder of the experience design agency, Ah Be Se. He also helped found PubPass in 2013.