First, history repeats itself. Second, the day of “there is an app for that” is over. I can justify the second point because of the first point. Let me explain.
A Little History
I started building web pages back in the mid 90’s (yes, literally last century). At the time, there was no Internet Explorer, no CSS, not even the annoying <blink> or <marquee> tag. The biggest development in the web world was the introduction of the <table> tag. That meant that we could actually have multi-column text in web pages!
People spent hours “browsing the web” looking for any and everything. Why? Because the internet was new and people were fascinated that there were so many web pages. You started your browsing session with a sense of adventure, unsure of what you would discover.
This internet thing looked cool so I decided the best way to get in on the action was to actually make something. I created a web page about wilderness backpacking, posted a few pictures from some on my trips, and hosted it on my university’s server. It was a hobby and I was having fun.
Soon I noticed that people from all over the world were looking at the site, so I decided to take this thing a little more seriously. I bought a domain, thebackpacker.com, and turned the website into a general resource for all backpackers.
I spent a lot of time working on the site and my traffic started to grow. I attribute a lot of this early success to first mover advantage. There wasn’t a lot of competition at this time, so thebackpacker.com was being listed in web directories as a top resource for backpacking. I even got the coveted sunglasses in the Yahoo directory for being a “cool” site.
Quick side note: I worked really hard to make thebackpacker.com a “serious” website with useful content. But the day the Hamster Dance web page got a write up in USA Today, I just wanted to scream. Really?! A bunch of animated cartoon hamster gifs with an annoyingly addictive background theme song is deemed national news? Ok, rant over.
When the internet bubble of the early 2000’s happened, investors finally realized that most of these crazy web pages didn’t actually make a lot of money. People were starting to grow tired of just “browsing” to see what was out there. Companies realized that their web sites needed to have a purpose; they need to provide real value to their consumers and not just be flashy brochures. Out of this grew a lot of what we take for granted today: online banking, online travel booking, and Amazon selling more than just books.
Did these businesses succeed only because of their web sites? No. They used their web sites as a way to extend the reach of their business.
Enter Smart Phones
Fast-forward a few years to the launch of the smart phone era. I must admit that I wasn’t an early adopter, I was more of a skeptic. But I soon started to fiddle with making mobile apps and my company created a few games as a way to get in the app space. We were pleasantly surprised when Moonshine Runners was featured as a “What’s New” editors pick in iTunes.
I wouldn’t call this success first mover advantage, there were plenty of apps in the app store at this time, but Moonshine Runners launched when the app store was still during it’s early growth period. This was the time period that I call “there is an app for that”.
Just like the early internet, people were hungry to see what was out there. They would download any and every app just to check it out. This led to the rise of “fart button” apps. You know these apps. The apps that attract you with some silly premise but essentially have no long-term value. You might even call them the smart phone era’s version of the Hamster Dance.
Soon after launching Moonshine Runners the number of apps in the app store exploded, Apple began to take action against frivolous apps, and people got tired of downloading apps.
Now, getting featured by Apple is very hard and just publishing an app doesn’t mean anyone will be able to find it. Major players like Facebook and Google dominate the top download charts. The day of “there is an app for that” is over. Good-bye silly fart buttons.
Today, people want apps that provide real value to them and make their everyday lives easier. Sound familiar? Web sites went through this same shift in the early 2000s. Mobile apps are going through the same shift now.
Are Apps Dead?
Web sites didn’t die after the early internet bubbles and mobile apps won’t die any time soon. We just need to adjust our thinking about what types of new apps we develop. Moving forward, successful mobile apps will be ones that provide a way for businesses to reach their customers in a valuable way.
Being a mobile app developer, people are always coming up to me with their great idea for a new app. When they describe their idea, what I am really listening for is the business behind the app.
An app that tracks a freelancer’s work time is not a time sheet app. It is a billing and invoicing business which happens to have an app as a way to input time.
A calorie counting app is not just a daily food journal. It is a way for fitness company’s to stay in touch with their clients on a daily basis.
A mobile app should exist to help a business reach its goals. Focus on your business first. What goals do you want to achieve? Then think about what technologies can help you achieve those goals. Some companies may not need an app. Others may need a very complex app.
Let your business goals dictate your technology, not your technology dictate your business goals.
And if you do create something as annoyingly addictive as the Hamster Dance, people may still be talking about it 20 years later. (Watch the Hamster Dance)