It’s hard to imagine a mobile web without app icons hogging up your smartphone screen. Since Apple unleashed its App Store in 2008 native applications have become synonymous with mobile devices. However, the dominance of mobile apps is under threat.
This isn’t exactly a new concept – people in the design and development community have been questioning the future of native apps for some time. But the notion of Google App Streaming has given new fuel to the argument they could be living on borrowed time.
Is Google trying to kill off mobile apps?
It’s no secret apps dominate mobile usage. Users have been found to spend almost 90% of their time on smartphone and tablets using native applications.
Data from Smart Insights
This leaves Google with a bit of a problem. The more time people spend in apps, the less time they spend searching the web. These figures are a little bit skewed because Google Search is an app and so is YouTube (part of the Google family and the second most used ‘search engine’).
The timeshare between some of our favourite apps looks a little something like this:
Data from comScore
The problem Google faces is that people go to specific apps to find the content they’re looking for. Mobile habits start to dictate the content people can access. They go to Facebook first and once they’ve seen every new post they head to Twitter or something else. They’re locked into this habit of discovery where search plays a very small role.
A better option for Google would be a search acting as a point of contact for content across these platforms – or at least as many of them as possible. It’s already tried to do this with app indexing and deep linking. The idea is users can get from Google Search to specific content on Twitter, YouTube and other apps in a single click.
Image from Google
This presents a number of problems, though. First of all, this in-app content needs to be indexable like a web page. Which means developers need to build their apps in a certain way – something Google can’t control. And even with developers making their apps indexable users still need to have them installed on their device to access the content.
Google’s solution to this problem is app streaming, which allows users to access content without having the application installed on their device. Users with the app installed link directly as normal, but those who don’t get a live streamed version instead.
It’s a pretty exciting direction for Google to take – one that removes a lot of friction between search and apps, but also solves some key user problems.
Apps are becoming a UX pain
As the eternal quest for a better mobile web continues, apps are becoming a bit of a pain. Google’s app indexing and deep linking are great if you have the app installed but a real frustration if you don’t.
The same problem can happen on Facebook and other networks that support deep linking. People can post links to almost any kind of content, but without the right apps in place, you’ll be redirected to an app store.
This brings us onto the real UX issue with mobile apps: downloading them asks too much of users. Precious bandwidth, storage space and a growing list of security concerns are among the barriers between users and app downloads. Why the hell should a keyboard app need access to your photos? Or why should you download an app to see one video your friend wants to share?
Now hold on, I’ve just had a notification telling me I’ve got 84 apps that need updating.
The rise of web apps
As I say, people have been calling time on native apps for some time now. And much of this comes down to the evolution of web applications – something I touched on last year. Google is fully invested in this technology, too, with Progressive Web Applications.
To be honest, the so-called “rise” of web apps hasn’t exactly been meteoric. People are still spending most of their times in native apps, which makes them a more attractive investment for many firms. Then there’s the issue of building web apps that operate fast enough in the browser. The technology is getting better but it will be a few years before it really takes off.
Is the end looming for mobile apps?
The line between browsers, apps and operating systems is constantly blurring. Notifications mean you can access certain content without opening the app. While Google’s efforts to bridge the search process with other platforms are taking this even further.
It only makes sense for mobile apps as we know them to say a gradual goodbye. By this I mean no more downloads and minimal or no actions needed to access content from different applications. This is simply the natural progression for creating a better mobile web.
So from a user perspective, mobile apps will likely disappear completely. Or to such an extent they’re barely even noticeable. But this doesn’t mean they won’t be there in smaller fragments working behind the scenes.
Brands and developers will constantly look for better ways to deliver content and remove barriers to using the web. Whether this means merging mobile and web apps or completely replacing them largely depends on the tech giants. Google is already working on both approaches and Apple is doing similar things with On-Demand Resources.
This makes sense because neither users or the technology are ready for a completely app-free web. However, the problems are very real now so gradually merging the web, native apps and operating systems is a good way to go. This will make the process towards an app-free web easier for users and allow the necessary technology to mature.