In the early 2000s, mobile phone owners discovered the wonders of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). The entire world was looking at Japan and their fancy WAP services powered by bulky, antenna-sporting devices, wondering how the technology would develop. That was our first contact with the mobile Internet, and it was short-lived. As phones got larger screens and faster connections, they started to support the same web standards as computers. Then Steve Jobs unveiled the App Store in 2008, kicking off an app era and sending the mobile web into oblivion.
In 2015, Apple celebrated 100 billion app downloads on its App Store. But despite their popularity, apps too are in danger of going the way of WAP. The tech ecosystem is ruthless, and even the most useful products and services have two options: adapt or die. With the advent of chatbots and the comeback of the mobile web, app developers are at a crucial crossroads. Is the app-ocalypse really set to happen, and how will the necessary evolutions serve both users and the developers community?
Eight years after their initial launch, the app honeymoon has eventually come to an end. With over 1,000 new submissions to the App Store per day, the constant bombardment of new apps has become overwhelming for consumers. According to Google, 60 percent of apps have never been downloaded.
Installing an app requires some effort on the user’s part and can be data heavy if not connected to Wi-Fi. Downloading the entire app may also feel like a waste of time, memory, or home screen estate if you plan to only use it once or access a tiny portion of its content. To make matters worse, many apps are plagued with problems like slowdowns, battery drain, and inconsistent performance.
From a distribution standpoint, publishers and developers are also affected. Submitting an app for approval to a store causes an incompressible delay between each update. Some companies would also gladly cut the extra cost of developing native apps both for Android and iOS in addition to maintaining a mobile website.
Another major complaint is that there is barely any integration between apps. They form independent silos that won’t necessarily expose the content to third-party apps unless they have established a clear relationship and opened deep-linking routes into each other, like Facebook with Messenger, or Gmail with Chrome. Not everyone notices this problem; however, the lack of collaboration between apps limits the user experience, since the only way to drag context from one app to another consists in tapping the share button or using the phone’s copy-paste feature.
Bot or not?
Bots are the talk of 2016, and industry leaders like Mark Zuckerberg believe they will change the way we use our phones. Their ability to understand context makes them more agile than most apps, and some app-ageddon advocates even go as far as to claim that bots are the new apps.
However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. While ordering a pizza from within a chat with friends definitely makes sense, asking a chatbot to post a selfie on Instagram doesn’t sound very convenient. Finding a restaurant or a bar also seems less time-consuming and hazardous via Yelp or Foursquare than it would be through a conversation with a bot.
Not everything can be done via texting, and for now apps often remain a more convenient solution than bots. Still, people don’t always want to install a new app, which is why Google introduced Instant Apps, which allows users to run subsections of a native app without having to download the entire file from the store. In the most basic terms, Instant Apps are subdivided into modules that can all be accessed by clicking on a link that temporarily loads the portions absolutely necessary for the app to run. That’s a major improvement for the user. However, Instant Apps remain native software, which means they still need to be developed in a native language, compiled, and submitted to Google for approval.
Enter the Progressive Web App (PWA), a powerful technology also heavily promoted by Google, which is a website that serves the purpose of an app without the native drawbacks. PWAs offer almost the same access to the phone’s APIs (camera, geolocation, storage, push notifications, etc.), as well as the same quality of animations as most native apps. And the beauty of PWAs is that they don’t need to be downloaded in full — only the main structure of the app and the immediately necessary content are initially loaded in the browser.
Based on a recent W3C specification called service workers, PWAs are also able to run their cached content offline, thus offering the same experience as a native app while also being able to update to the most recent version as soon as you get back online — the best of both worlds.
A smarter web based on A.I.
The idea of using web technologies to develop apps is not new. Back in 2007, before the App Store even existed, Jobs already wanted the iPhone to support web apps. His goal was to leverage the web developer community by making it easier for everyone to develop apps for the iPhone. It turned out that mobile web technology was not ready at the time, and the App Store also was the safest way for Apple to control the user experience.
Now that web apps are catching up with their native equivalents, they open a whole new opportunity for the Internet to become a platform of choice. Such a change will require the browsing experience to finally adapt to our mobility. Ever since their first release, mobile browsers like Chrome or Safari have basically remained smaller-screen versions of their desktop counterparts, without integrating any major innovation that would make them more suited to mobile usage. No matter how recent they are, I call them “legacy browsers” in the sense that they maintain the status quo of being a dumb window to the web. What we need now is a smart browser, one that uses artificial intelligence to understand what you’re doing and anticipate your needs to save you time.
Artificial intelligence is already at work in Google search algorithms, and startups around the world have started implementing machine learning into their own innovative search solutions. However, the true revolution is more likely to happen on the browsing side, because this is where A.I. can really make a difference for the user. Every website and every web app, whether a PWA or not, exposes its content to the browser. Therefore, the browser can access the text and images of any page you read. By adding a dedicated A.I. into your web navigation, it would be possible to turn the browser into a web-based personal assistant for your phone.
Think of it this way: No matter which page you’re reading, your phone could anticipate your needs and recommend to you the most relevant things to do next. By removing friction from the user interface, this technology will make your experience seamless and allow apps to finally interact with each other, in your best interest. Welcome to the mobile web of tomorrow, a smart web that truly leverages context thanks to the brain placed into your browser.