Depending on whose statistics you believe, there are more than 600,000 apps in the Apple App Store and more than 400,000 apps in the Google Market (now called “Play”). Those numbers probably jumped 25 percent in the time it took to read that sentence. The running joke these days about almost anything from movie listings to doggie spa locations is “There’s an app for that.” The more, the merrier, right?
Maybe not. There are too many apps, and the whole app-centric culture is reducing efficiency and adding costs to software development while offering questionable benefit.
To be clear, there are useful apps. Graphically rich games, if you enjoy them, make for good apps, particularly on tablets, which offer a nicely sized playfield. Of course, Web browsers, e-mail, and streamlined productivity apps for notes and document editing have their place. But many apps are designed to provide very narrow functionality, like a weather app that… looks up the weather forecast, or a news app that simply reformats stories that appear on a Website.
A large category of apps can be described as vessels that simply reformat content from the Web. Smartphones and tablets benefit from simpler layouts, but the technology already exists to deliver this directly from the Web. Mobile Websites are nothing new. There is no need for an “app” that is simply a shell to deliver Web content. In fact, many of these narrow-purpose apps can and should be Web-based applications (particularly built on HTML5) delivered through the browser.
Just like kitchen unitaskers like apple peelers and avocado slicers, apps add inefficient clutter. This clutter is not just theoretical. On a smartphone or tablet, each app takes up internal storage space. It may or may not consume RAM, depending whether it runs in the background and how well the OS manages multitasking. Whenever an app author revises the software, the app store pushes an update notification to the end user. After only a few days with my tablet, I was being bombarded nearly daily with alerts about apps for which updates were available.
For the end user, all these apps amount to a stack of miniature, monetized walled gardens, when most of their functionality could be delivered more efficiently through another channel: the Web.
For business, the booming app culture can be a cost center. The perceived “need” to create apps means duplicating functionality that may already exist on Websites and redeveloping it for multiple platforms. Sure, iOS may be the dominant platform, but if you ignore Android (and maybe even Windows 8 mobile), potential customers are being missed. Meanwhile, apps built on HTML5 can be used on all modern platforms without the extra development costs.
Also, distributing apps is a step away from the advantages of cloud-based software models. With apps installed locally on myriad devices, versioning will be inconsistent. Some users will be out of date. One of the great advantages of software-as-a-service, such as HTML5-based Web apps, is that all users are always on the latest version, which reduces support demands.
Plenty of functionality can be delivered to mobile users without building “an app for that.” Whether it makes sense to produce an app when other development models are more efficient needs to be considered independent of the marketing appeal surrounding the app hype.