Are mobile apps missing the mark?

Published on February 28, 2012 under Technology, Web Development, Apple / Mac / iPhone, Google / Android

Mobile apps

I must admit I was surprised. I engaged in my usual wake-up regime of reading the news and Facebook when I came across an article posted on and USA Today. It spoke of a study that showed that while millions of people own smartphones, most barely use more than five apps on a regular basis

The central thought journalists were trying to make is for the millions of apps floating around the various stores, most users really didn't seem to care. Outside of news, weather, email, and some social network apps, most apps simply are barely used or never used; and thus it looked like apps are not the driving force behind one's decision to buy a smartphone in general or of a particular brand.

Now one would think this is insane, but even I notice this same habit with my own smartphone usage. Are we seeing a decline in mobile? Or has mobile hit its maturity and now we're stuck where we're at or in a bind to find the next innovation? I like to believe this dilemma now is based on several factors in the world. Allow me to illustrate...

Poor data infrastructure holding back innovation

I flew off the handle on this one a month ago, so I won't go deeply on it. I still think the amount of trouble most users have in using data on a regular basis is why we're sort of "stuck" in the mode we're in. The commercials of happy customers watching movies on the subway, video conferencing in a cafe or park, and doing wild thing you only see in sci-fi movies just hasn't happened. It's hard to make that happen when you're constantly being hit with "cannot connect" messages, or data caps on how much we can use. Thus, many users just stick to the basics when out and about.

Most apps aren't meant to be used regularly

Netflix on AndroidI look at my iPhone right now and see a plethora of icons on the screen, neatly organized into folders based on interests. Even when I purged my phone of most of the data-driven apps, there's still plenty left. In a given day I usually am on my email, messages, maps, Safari, weather app, and of course Facebook. Other apps like GeoLogTag or even Netflix I use occasionally, simply because one is meant more for when I go on photo shoots and the other is really when I don't feel like going to my TV, laptop, or tablet.

I do have many games on my phone, but even then those I pull up when I need to "kill time", like when I'm on the train or waiting in a lobby for my fiance. Often times I'll have games I barely touch after the initial play after downloading. I just usually have more to do when I'm not just someplace alone with my phone, like work.

On my ThinkPad Tablet, I also have the usuals of email, weather, and Facebook, but I will also use my tablet for heavier reading via news and magazine apps, and I utilize the Notes Mobile app for taking notes in meetings. Outside of that I actually removed most of the included apps to keep my system running lean. I see plenty of "interesting" apps in the app stores, but I just don't feel inclined to download them, even if they're free. I simply don't want to load up my tablet with stuff I'll rarely or never use.

You only need one app for one function

If you really dig into the app stores for both iOS and Android, you'll see a lot of overlap in ideas. You'll see a plethora of weather apps, apps for to-do lists, apps for reading email, variations on famous games (only with different names), and loads of other copycats of one another. In the end, a user doesn't need more than one of those apps for a given function, and are more than likely to use the included app that came with the phone. Why would someone install Opera when they have Safari or Chrome? Why use an organizer app like 2Do when you have Reminders already in your iPhone?

The only rationale would be if you see a benefit to any of these apps that you do not get with the factory-installed app. I myself installed the Weather Channel's app over the iPhone's weather app simply because I liked the level of detail and accuracy I get with it. However, I ignored the official Gmail app from Google for my iPhone and instead chose to stick with the included mail app from Apple, simply because it works just fine for me. In the cases of apps like Opera and 2Do, I can say the same that one would install if they simply prefer them over the factory-installed Safari and Reminders, but many simply will not bother.

With the plethora of apps all competing to fulfill one or more needs.we're just going to see many left in the wasteland simply because the need has been fulfilled in the factory install or by a known/popular name people immediately find a sense of safety in. I won't even touch the even greater number of apps many have deemed as "totally useless".

Many apps don't perform as well as the actual website

This will be a big sticking point for me, especially for every time I try to share an article on Facebook using my iPhone or Android tablet. I'll want to post the article on a page rather than my profile, and I can't. I'll want the reference image to appear and things to work nice, but they won't. I'll try to post a specific link on Twitter, and in many apps they will try to change my link. I go to many apps that simply feed in website content from a blog or news site, and find content missing, things not reading as well as the site, and especially the comments area not working.

I think if one is going to take their online business or service into the mobile stream, they need to work things better so most, if not all, the functionality you get on the full website will be present in the mobile app. I stopped using the Wordpress mobile app simply because of how much of a misery it became to edit a posting compared to the ease of their in-browser CMS. I have Google Docs installed on both iPhone and Android Tablet, but found they don't work as well as what you get in a browser on a laptop.

Many times now when I really want to share an article or post a comment, I'll end up emailing the link to myself an then take care of it when I get on a laptop or desktop. This is not progress in the mobile space, and developers need to get more robust if they want to put their website or service as a mobile app. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who has hit these issues.

Some ideas just need a mobile website over an app

Taking it on another level, I personally think some websites build mobile apps when they really don't need them. Most of the blogs and news sites I've encountered as apps really are not offering much more than you get on their mobile site. I know some want to have a nice icon sitting in the app store, but there is a growing movement towards native apps that run fully off a mobile web browser and thus there is no need to deal with the guidelines or rules put in the app stores.

I myself realized in most cases I didn't need to know how to build a full app as much as I needed to know how to make a mobile website, because most of the time that's all a client needs. So think of that in terms of the user. Why install an app when you get everything you need on the mobile site? Even the studies taken to start this discussion did not dive into if people are using more mobile sites. In the end, all they see is a consumer using Safari or Chrome.

Consumers may not desire a lot

Checking email on smartphoneOutside of the data infrastructure issues, plethora of copycat apps, and discussion of mobile app VS mobile website, I think the real reason of this supposed "decline" has to do with consumer expectations.

Think about it. Why did you buy a Palm Pilot or PDA way back when (if you did)? You wanted to get rid of that bigger paper book you kept all your calendar and contacts in.

Why did you buy a Blackberry? You wanted to lighten the load in your pocket so you didn't need the PDA and a cell phone. Plus you wanted to be able to receive your email anywhere rather than sending it to your PDA via a computer sync.

So what lead you to an iPhone or Android phone? You wanted everything the Blackberry gave you, but in a better package and user interface. Plus you wanted more data and information given to you in real time be it the news, stock prices, weather, or maps and traffic.

All the other apps for ideas like photo geotagging, watching streaming movies, looking up and saving recipes, even social media...they were all added bonuses. We have integrated some of them into our daily lives, but the rest have more become occasional parts of our mobile experiences.

One shouldn't think an app has failed if it's not used all the time, but more understand that consumers will more than likely just need the "basics" on their smartphone, and the winners in the market are those who can provide a better service than those given. Look at me as an example with my using of the Weather Channel app. Yes, I can just use the included iPhone Weather app, but I choose another app simply because of the quality of the end result. I also willingly chose to move my YouTube app into another screen and place a shortcut to the YouTube mobile app as my primary YouTube usage, just because the mobile site works better than the app.

Moving forward, I think developers and companies should seriously begin to take into account a deeper understanding of the consumer mindset. See that they want their basic needs fulfilled and perhaps do not need 100 more fart noise generators. To see that if you want to tell time, or show the weather, or connect to social networks for users; you should then be prepared to really offer an easier and more robust experience than what is being given.

I don't think mobile is missing the mark, but has come into maturity. Now we must understand and adjust to meet the current needs and find new ways to move forward so perhaps we might just be able to ditch our laptops for mobile.

What do you think? Is mobile missing the mark? Or are we just getting started in possibilities?

Tags: mobile, apps, market, consumer, technology

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