THE IOS APP Store used to be simple. Apps were things, little squares you could see and touch, and it made sense to buy them, put them on your phone, and use them one at a time like blades in a Swiss army knife.
Well, that’s all going away. Our dumb, silo’d apps are slowly but steadily becoming smart, context-aware services that link, share, and talk to each other without us having to necessarily see or touch those little squares. First, Google debuted Now on Tap, an update of its contextual-information assistant Google Now that you can activate without leaving other apps. Then Apple announced Proactive, an upgrade to Siri and Spotlight that lets iOS reach inside apps to surface their data and link their functionality without having to open them from your home screen.
“Me too”-ness aside, Apple’s post-app future is off the blocks and on Google’s heels. The company’s WWDC keynote struck a typically utopian note: What’s not to like about an iPhone that behaves more like a personal assistant than a bag of hammers?
Well, that all depends. Mobile experiences are going to get much more “frictionless,” to use a hot buzzword. They’re also going to become a lot more homogeneous, with more points of contact but fewer options for control. App creators may face new challenges to gaining adoption, and the “platform wars” between iOS and Android could become a tangible pain point for users instead of a vague abstraction debated by tech pundits. But don’t worry, you may not even mind—and what we once knew as apps may, in retrospect, end up looking like a strangely primitive generation in the evolution of mobile computing.
App Designers: Get Out of the Single-Feature Business
Steve Jobs infamously called Dropbox a feature, not a product. He saw a future in which Dropbox’s killer app—seamless, cloud-based file transfer—was nothing more than an iOS system utility.
Jobs was wrong about Dropbox in 2011, but he might’ve been right if the conversation happened now. Single-task apps, however great, can now be more easily accessed as services via iOS’s Share Sheets and Notification Center. Proactive and Spotlight integration will only make it easier to invoke the output of an app like Dark Sky (which delivers hyperlocal rain forecasts) without ever having to “open” the app itself. All well and good. But if your typical user experience of Dark Sky is confined to a short voice conversation with Siri, what is Dark Sky? Is it a product or a feature? And is it still worth the trouble to install, much less pay for?
“The genius of the App Store was that it turned software into this discrete product you could make a clear value proposition about,” says William Van Hecke, a designer and developer at the Omni Group, which makes productivity software for iOS. “You buy this thing, you tap it, and it does what it says on the box. Now the edges are really blurry.”
Apps with strong incumbent identities might easily transition from thing to utility. I’m already a fan and loyal user of Dark Sky’s forecasting app, so the difference between launching the app or invoking an iOS weather report “powered by” Dark Sky are trivial. But new and unfamiliar apps might find this a tougher sell. It’s one thing to drop a new little square into my home screen and see what happens. Installing a new background process that might have unpredictable effects on other integrated services? That’s another matter—even if, ultimately, the functionality is identical.
There’s a lot of startups that are features masquerading as companies, and they’ll find a better home in this world.
Photos are another good example. You might be fine with letting Instagram “power” your iOS camera, gallery, and photo-sharing services. But what about the next Instagram, the one that doesn’t yet exist? The App Store has trained us to equate “install” with “try out”—and those innocuous little squares visually reinforce the idea that anything we put “on” an iPhone is low-risk and easily reversible, much like applying a sticker or decal. Take away those reassuring squares, and the psychological energy barrier of swapping apps in and out might become significant.
But it could cut both ways. Eric Rolston, founder of the design studio Argodesign, sees the de-app-ification of mobile software empowering third-party developers hoping to secure a foothold on the platform. “There’s a lot of startups that are features masquerading as companies, and they’ll find a better home in this world,” he says. “For some transactions, it’s ideal. If you can write a perfect API, there’s no longer a need to wrap it up in an app or UI.”
Instead of retailing visually attractive “things,” developers might sell (or sell subscriptions to) context-aware “powers” that imbue a mobile device with extra capabilities, like Mario eating a mushroom. Of course, you can convincingly argue that apps do this already, whether they’re instantiated as shiny squares or as SMS-like system notifications. But on mobile devices, these perceptions matter. “Consumers don’t think in terms of raw provisioning,” Rolston says. “They think of affordances that they can touch and enjoy.”
The Cold War Phase of Mobile Ecosystems
Once third-party app experiences are unbundled from unique interfaces and smeared across a variety of integrated touch points and OS-level utilities, the once-abstract concept of a “mobile ecosystem” is going to get a lot more concrete. Sure, Apple and Google (not to mention Facebook and Amazon) have always wanted users to go “all in,” but we could easily balance the strengths of one tech superpower against the weaknesses of another. Farhad Manjoo’s advice in The New York Times in February—Apple hardware, Google services, Amazon media—is practical and all but pain-free to implement.
But in a post-app world, this kind of triangulation might not make the same kind of sense. “I took Google Maps off my iPhone home screen when I got the Apple Watch, even though Apple’s map data is nowhere near as good,” Van Hecke admits. “Obviously, all of these service integrations are going to work better if you go all-in [on one mobile platform]. Launching Facebook Paper to read the news, or Google Maps to get directions, may soon feel archaic.”
If that happens, it won’t be because those app experiences aren’t well-designed. It’ll be because they’re cut off—literally dis-integrated from the seamless, platform-level services that add up to be more than the sum of their merely “good enough” parts. Instead of Apple and Google behaving like singular superpowers in an app-driven arms race, iOS and Android ecosystems will be more like NATO and the Warsaw Pact: parallel dominions competing for influence in post-app “proxy wars” like wearable tech, connected homes, and automated transportation. Think about it: Even if you could, are you really going to invest the extra effort to run Google Maps in your iCar?
And if the Cold War metaphor seems over the top, consider the “Move to iOS” Android app that Apple has quietly prepared alongside iOS 9. Apparently, it will wirelessly whisk all your data—and even some apps—“over the border” into iOS territory, all in one clean shot. Apple isn’t just inviting you to switch anymore. Now they want you to defect.
The Upshot: Will You Care?
Right now it matters to me to tap open Google’s iOS search app rather than flick open Spotlight and be stuck with Bing. But dissolve enough of the borders and branding around this experience, and it can easily become a distinction without a difference. Apps are just middlemen, albeit attractive ones. And services—cognitive, contextual, seamless, smart, whatever—are just apps, abstracted one level away.
But when it comes down to it, mobile users aren’t interested in either one. We’re more like the no-nonsense cartel kingpin in Miami Vice who coldly informs Crockett and Tubbs that “in this business, I do not buy a service. I buy a result.”
Me, too. I don’t want Yelp; I want to know where to eat. I don’t care about Google Calendar; I care about not missing appointments. I don’t buy iPhones; I buy best-in-class pictures of my kids. I’m loyal only to results, and I suspect you are, too.
Rolston agrees. He’s “super excited” about the post-app future of mobile, he says. “Yes, Apple and Google will claw at each other over this. But so what?” Apps, services, tomato, tomah-to. Make users feel more like kingpins, and everybody wins.
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