Brace Yourself, Here Comes the Mobile Appsplosion

Companies are engaged in a kind of arms race with competitors to see how many apps they can get everyone to use. But this aggressive push for more apps is going to end up giving users app fatigue.

Smartphone and tablet apps are great. But now we're facing a kind of app glut. Our smartphones are quickly becoming bloated with far more apps than anyone can manage.

Remember when Facebook had an app? You could post messages, upload and share pictures, message people, read stuff and poke your friends.

Now Facebook has many apps for doing similar things. In addition to the main Facebook app, Facebook offers Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, Paper, Camera and others.

None of these are necessary. All those features could be easily accommodated in the main Facebook app. But Facebook is embarking on a strategy of creating a maximum number of mobile apps to take up more space on a smartphone screen and, presumably, capture more user mindshare.

In what's proving to be an unpopular move, Facebook is removing the chat feature from the main Facebook iOS and Android apps to force people to install a second app called Messenger. (The rollout of this policy across the globe will be gradual and take weeks.) I expect more forced adoption of apps that contain what used to be features inside the Facebook app.

Facebook isn't the only company with a more-apps-is-better strategy.

Dropbox has since its launch been a simple-to-use cloudstorage and sharing service accessible both via the Web and through iOS and Android apps. But this week, Dropbox fans were confronted with more Dropbox apps to download and install.

In addition to rolling out a new Dropbox for Business, the company also unveiled Project Harmony, which enables group editing and sharing of Microsoft Office apps stored on Dropbox, as well as Dropbox Carousel, a photo-sharing app.

Dropbox also announced an Android version of its Mailbox email app, which has been available on iOS for more than a year. The company expects to further the strategy in the future with still more apps.

These two sets of announcements this week are part of a larger trend where companies engage in a kind of arms race with competitors to see how many apps they can get everyone to use.

It may be a reaction to Google's leadership in the mobile app arena, where that company makes most of the mobile ad revenue, and also gobbles up screen real estate. Just looking at my own Android phone, I see Google's Gmail, Google+, Maps, Play Music, Play Movie, Play Books, Play News (yes, they all have their own apps), YouTube, Calendar, People, Drive, Keep. There are others I could download if I wanted to.

Meanwhile, objects in our lives that never had associated apps are getting them. The so-called Internet of Things and the home automation movement are mostly bringing apps onto our phones.

A company called Automatic plugs into your car's data port to deliver details on the car's functioning and performance via a smartphone app.

Philips, Samsung and LG Electronics now sell smart lightbulbs. Now you need an app to turn on the light.

Google recently bought Nest, which makes smart thermostats and smart smoke detectors, both app-controllable.

A new world of smart washing machines and smart refrigerators and smart air conditioners from companies like Samsung and LG will usher in a new world of apps that control physical things in our homes.

Related to the Internet of Things, we'll see apps to go with our wearable devices, including smartwatches and smart glasses.

It seems that every exciting new trend in computing these days involves more and more mobile apps.

Users are certainly spending a lot of time with apps. At least that's what mobile analytics firm Flurry found when it measured usage patterns on 1.3 billion smartphones worldwide. According to Flurry, U.S. users on average spend about two hours and 42 minutes each day actively using their smartphones or tablets. Some 86% of the time that people spend using smartphones involves the use of apps, rather than surfing the mobile Web.

This abandonment of the mobile Web and the embrace of the mobile app is no surprise. Just about every major company or organization offering content on the Web eventually comes out with a mobile app for better presenting their information or services on a small touchscreen.

Each individual change that brings new apps for things that didn't used to have apps makes perfect sense and represents an improvement in how things work and how users interact.

Inevitably, though, a kind of app fatigue will set in. At some point, there will be too many apps for the average user to deal with.

I already find myself using the Play Store to find apps I know I've already installed simply because it's faster and easier than finding them on the phone. Every user is or will soon feel the strain of trying to cope. It takes longer and longer to hunt for the mobile app we're looking for.

That's why major companies are buying Android apps that help you deal with app overload. For example, Yahoo bought Aviate. More recently, Twitter bought Cover. Both these apps automatically find a user's most frequently accessed apps and make them readily available on the home screen so they're not lost in the haystack of apps on the phone.

Apps that automatically bring forward other apps are nice. But ultimately they're not a solution to the coming app overload problem.

Call it the mobile appsplosion. It's coming. And it's not going to be pretty.

This article, " Brace Yourself, Here Comes the Mobile Appsplosion," was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about mobile apps in Computerworld's Mobile Apps Topic Center.

This story, "Brace Yourself, Here Comes the Mobile Appsplosion" was originally published by Computerworld.

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