Why Is There an App for That?

Aaron Weiss, Tech Journalist / Humorist | 4/13/2012 | 23 comments

Aaron Weiss
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.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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Henrisha   Why Is There an App for That?   4/15/2012 9:17:50 AM
Re: quality vs quantity
Quality should always have a larger weight versus quantity. But a lot of developers out there are just in the app business to make a quick buck or are churning apps out with the hope that one of them goes viral. And when that's their end goal, there isn't much to say when it comes to quality.
Henrisha   Why Is There an App for That?   4/15/2012 9:16:16 AM
Re: App publishing criteria
I think apps that do too little should be kept out. I know that sounds a bit vague, but if you see some of the apps out there that just, I don't know, somehow work as search engines or video search apps, then I don't think they're very useful to that end.
Hammad Masood   Why Is There an App for That?   4/14/2012 5:09:15 PM
App publishing criteria
What do you think should be the app publishing criteria? Apple has a strong checking and publishing criteria whereas Android is very relaxing.
LuFu   Why Is There an App for That?   4/14/2012 5:07:35 PM
Re: App removal? There's an app for that.
@vnewman - Either an algorithm or maybe Apple brought back the old payola system that record companies used with radio stations.
Hammad Masood   Why Is There an App for That?   4/14/2012 5:06:43 PM
Re: quality vs quantity
True, App market is too much saturated now. we are lacking innovation here. The game category is coming up with better apps, rest are just being repeated.
Pedro Gonzales   Why Is There an App for That?   4/14/2012 3:54:46 PM
quality vs quantity
I agree with everyone, there seem to be too many apps these days,  I'm most annoyed for the fact that there are many apps from different vendors which do the same thing.  I was searching the other day for a heart rate monitor, there seems to be 10 on google with all doing the same things.  You are right, as well, if the web can provide the same features as the app, it is pointless to make an app for it.  I think for advertising that there is a large collection of apps is somewhat misleading if the quality of apps is bad
vnewman   Why Is There an App for That?   4/14/2012 11:51:08 AM
Re: App removal? There's an app for that.
"At any rate, the way app stores are made also contributes to this problem. they are mostly constructed with "top lists" and poor search capabilities."

Does anyone know how a top app makes the "top" list in the Apple store in the first place?  I assume there's some type of algorithm for it and it's not just a popularity contest i.e. how many times it's been downloaded.  
LuFu   Why Is There an App for That?   4/13/2012 1:51:18 PM
App removal? There's an app for that.
I average about 100 apps on my iPhone. I periodically do an app dump of ones that I never or rarely use...which is the majority of them. Ultimately there are probably less than 20 that I use on a regular basis, the rest just gather dust.

At the moment Apple has the most apps but it's predicted that Android should pass them by sometime in 2012. Whatever, apps come and go like fallen leaves in the wind.
David Wagner   Why Is There an App for That?   4/13/2012 1:21:15 PM
Re: Apps give so many so much pleasure
True, Curt. Though even Apple misses occasionally. And it doesn't avoid paying for something that stinks.

At any rate, the way app stores are made also contributes to this problem. they are mostly constructed with "top lists" and poor search capabilities. Google Play is better than the old market, but we can still do better.
CurtisFranklin   Why Is There an App for That?   4/13/2012 12:30:02 PM
Re: Apps give so many so much pleasure
@David, I have to admit this is one area where I like the relationship Apple enforces with App Store developers: It's much more difficult to get malware into the App Store because of the approval process. You're right in your basic assumption, though: Quickly and easily downloading malware isn't a good thing.
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