Sunday, September 7, 2014

I Hate Apps

Please don't infer from the title that I am some sort of Luddite, just another old geezer who hates newfangled technology.  Quite the contrary; I love what apps can do.  I just hate how they're doing it.

I was astonished recently to count 71 apps on my phone (almost half of which came preloaded).  It takes 4 screens just to scroll through them all.  I don't like to think about how many permissions for how much of my data I've had to give to the various developers, ostensibly for my benefit but somehow, I suspect, at least as much for theirs.  It worries me.

Two years ago Nielsen reported that the average smartphone user had downloaded 41 apps.  Just recently, they found that we spend over 30 hours each month using, on average, 27 apps.  New research from comScore suggests that mobile now accounts for 60% of our digital time, and app use is 52% of all digital time. Still, maybe we've reached our limit for apps; 65% haven't downloaded a new app in the past month.

Any way you look at it, that's a lot of apps and a lot of time spent on apps.

Think about how you'd feel if, instead of using your favorite word processing program, you had to use one program to write memos, another to write letters, a third to create faxes, a fourth to address envelopes, and so on.  Those programs would have to be pretty spectacular to offset the all-in-one convenience of Word and its competitors.  Apps are the mobile equivalent of those individual programs.

Let's put this in the context of health.  Take a relatively simple case: a man with a small weight problem and Type 2 diabetes, both of which he is trying to manage through diet and exercise.  He tracks those using apps, plus his glucose levels and his (related) high blood pressure.  Oh, and it happens he has bad allergies, especially a wicked peanut allergy, so he uses apps to monitor allergen levels and which foods/restaurants are safe.  His doctor has an EHR with an app, plus he uses an app to track his appointments.  He also has the app for his doctor's health system, a health content app, and his health plan's app.

So that's 11 apps just to track his health. The poor guy is just trying to do one thing -- take care of his health -- and it takes 11 apps to do it.  And this is not a particularly complex example.

Health care knows all about information being siloed.  The app experience is perpetuating the silos and, arguably, adding more.

The thing is, while managing health is an important part of anyone's life, it isn't anyone's entire life.  Most people have families, a job, their finances, and hobbies/interests, and there are lots of apps for all of those.  That's how we end up with dozens of apps.

I fear the problem with apps will get worse due to the increasing array of mobile devices.  Apps used to just be for smartphones, then tablets came along, which usually require a second version.  Now we have "phablets" that are between smartphones and tablets, and "2-in-1" laptops that are a combination of tablet and laptop.  More versions of apps will be needed.  People have to remember which apps they have on which device and hope that they have access to the one they want when they need it.

Personally, I wonder why it is that I can access Evernote or Yelp, for example, just fine on my laptop, but I need an app to get the best experience from them on my phone or tablet.  After all, I don't have 71 website icons on my computer screen, nor 71 unique programs downloaded, to correspond to those 71 apps on my phone.  The browser works just fine.

Why don't websites optimize for the mobile experience automatically, rather than requiring apps?

The greatest thing about apps is how they have spurred innovation by lowering the bar to entry.  Everyone from teenagers working in their bedroom to seasoned developers in the biggest companies is writing apps.  The range of problems being addressed, the unique approaches used to solve them, and the array of user experiences being offered, is all wonderful to see.  Maybe if we used the app approach for word processing we might not have to wait for Microsoft to incrementally improve Word, nor have one program dominate the market so much.

The innovation is very highly desirable, but it comes at a cost.  There are over a million apps in both the iTunes App Store and Google Play Store -- and apparently almost none of the developers are making any money.  It is estimated that 2% of developers take in 50% of all app revenue, and 47% make virtually no money from their apps.  There's just too many apps to choose from.

If I were diagnosed with some new health condition, I'd rather spend my time researching the condition and its treatment than researching apps to help me with the condition.  I'd like to have apps to do that, mind you; it's just that I'm going to have other things to worry about when it actually comes time that I might need one.  It's a dilemma.

I've written before (Take One App and Text Me in the Morning) that I suspect apps are a transitional phase.  I wasn't smart enough to predict the emergence of apps, so I won't pretend to know what will take their place, but I'll offer a few thoughts on what I think the post-app future might look like:
  •  Platform Independent: As differences between devices get less distinct and as the Internet of Everything takes off, the notion of device-specific apps just can't hold up.   Users will want to be able to access what they want whenever they want, rather than needing a particular device.  Indeed, I'd argue that in twenty years the concept of our own device will have become old-fashioned.  The service -- i.e., website or app -- should figure out what UI to present using the best available device option.
  • Context-driven: Device-specific apps are really just a crude first step.  What we really want to get to is something that recognizes not only what device is being used but also the context in which it is being used.  I.e., reading alone is different than watching videos in a crowded room and different still from showing photos to a small group.  The UI should vary based on what the user is doing, where, and with whom.
  • Integrated:  Tracking health with 11 apps, as in my example above, may be no better, and possibly worse, than not tracking at all.  This is the dilemma of Big Data: what to do with all the information?  We will either have to have single purpose apps add functions, or use aggregator apps (like Apple's HealthKit hopes to be) to pull things together.  Or -- and this is my hope -- we will develop some AI intermediary that helps us make sense of all the various data.  Apple's Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft's Cortana are all early versions of this approach.   The more we recognize how inter-related health is with other aspect of one's life -- e.g., family & friends' health habits, job stress, environment -- the more this kind of broad-based, smart approach will be necessary.  
I'm not saying that any of these will be easy.  I recognize that they are far from where we are, and may require a conceptual leap that would make current web browsers look like what the Internet looked like before Mosaic made it truly the World Wide Web.  Apps are a very useful and fun intermediate step, but they are just that.

It's not really that I hate apps; it's that I can't wait to see the next stage of their evolution.


  1. Well, it's about time:

  2. Hi Kim,

    We should chat - we've just spent 2 years inside a very large healthcare provider designing a new strategy which answers your question with real working code. Also I've just finished an article for CIO magazine which will be published in March discussing this very problem.

    You can reach me at peter.cranstone at - we're in violent agreement on everything.