Google’s ‘War On Apps’ Is About Making Them Irrelevant
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Browsers, the quintessential and supremely flexible Web application that can morph from video player to newspaper to photo gallery with the simple change of a URL has been usurped in the mobile era by the app. These single purpose walled gardens create an irresistibly convenient alternative that is optimized for the small screen and limited navigational space of a smartphone. Much like TV created popular new entertainment genres like sitcoms and miniseries, distinct from movies and designed to both mitigate the medium’s limitations and exploit its advantages, the mobile app has surpassed the browser to become the window to the Internet. But what the app giveth in the form of convenience, a slick interface and focused feature it also taketh away in home screen clutter, lack of searchability and silos of information and functionality.

The typical smartphone uses about 27 apps per month, but as Nielsen points out,

Despite the increase in choices, the number of apps used is staying the same. A recent Nielsen analysis found that on average, U.S. smartphone users accessed 26.7 apps per month in the fourth quarter of 2014—a number that has remained relatively flat over the last two years. And consider this: Over 70% of the total usage is coming from the top 200 apps.

Yet the Nielsen data shows the total time spent using apps has increased 63% in just two years, with most of the increase coming in the entertainment category. This implies a practical ceiling on how many apps users can manage and keep up with. Indeed, a Forrester study found that most users spend the vast majority of time in just a handful of apps.
Contrast mobile mores with a 2008 study of Web behavior that found the average user visited 90 sites per day. Furthermore, 45% of of accesses were serendipitous, by following links from other sites versus just 10% via direct access from a bookmark or typing a URL. Mobile apps are the smartphone equivalent of the bookmark bar and since few apps outside of messaging, email and social sharing sites like Facebook and Twitter TWTR -2.98% feature links to other sites, the app constitutes a distinct shift in online navigational patterns.

Apps tend to Balkanize the Internet, sacrificing browser universality for convenience, specialization and a slick UI. I have previously argued the benefits of mobile apps, primarily because of the superior user experience, however the intervening years of app proliferation have revealed some hidden costs. In contrast to the ease, universality and accuracy of Web search, it’s impossible to find information outside an app’s moat of topics, nor is it always obvious. Yes, searching within the app is likely to produce relevant results for a given topic, but changing topics means switching apps. Even selecting the best app for a particular set needs is usually a trial-and-error proposition.

As the Nielsen data shows, the overhead of finding, installing, organizing and occasionally pruning one’s app inventory places an upper bound on the usable inventory. Apps are an example of the concept of local optimization at the expense of overall system utility. Indeed, Siri, Google GOOGL -2.07% Voice search and iOS Spotlight are OS-level concessions to the limitations of mobile apps. Not only is it harder to find the best app for the job, but apps take space (how many people were forced to delete a bunch of bloated apps just to install the iOS 8 update?) and require pushing updates to millions of devices whether they are using the app or not.

Back To The Future?

What if the mobile app user experience could be delivered with browser convenience, state management, resource footprint and searchability? Something like a Chromebook app model applied to mobile devices would be a big improvement with the right UI. HTML5 was supposed to provide this, and years of experience have demonstrated its potential, for example replacing Flash for video play, but also exposed its UI limitations. HTML5 is just part of the solution

A recent report hinted that Google may be working on just such an alternative approach to mobile app deployment. In what The Information provocatively characterized as Google’s War on Apps, it reported that Google acquired a stealthy app streaming startup, Agawi. Google appears interested in transforming Agawi’s streaming technology, which it first tried to. commercialize to power interactive, playable ads, into a general purpose platform. Apps run in the cloud and are delivered through a single interface, either a meta-app (something like Citrix Receiver) or the OS itself.

Source: Agawi, Techcrunch


The Information article concludes that “Google is engaged in a long-term effort to erode the central role of downloaded apps in hopes of regaining some power it has lost in the mobile world.” Indeed, the data shows that Google’s share of mobile ad revenue is declining.
Although Google is more predominant in mobile search than on the desktop, owning almost a 93% share, apps do threaten its app revenue. One analysis of online ad revenues estimates that Google’s share has dropped 17 points, to under 66% in the last two years. According to Cathy Boyle, senior analyst for mobile at eMarketer. “The explosion of mobile app development and usage means mobile users have more—and more specialized—alternatives for finding information.”


Source: Net Applications

This wouldn’t be the first time that Google has been rumored to be investigating alternatives to mobile apps, which first surfaced two years ago when its head of Chrome development, Sundar Pichai, took over Android spawning numerous grand unification theories. App streaming may end up as part of the solution — note that Google already supports something similar now that Chrome OS can run Android apps in a browser window — however one app developer points out another  improvement: predictive apps. Paul Adams, VP of product at Intercom, nails the problem and possible way out,

 The idea of having a screen full of icons, representing independent apps, that need to be opened to experience them, is making less and less sense. The idea that these apps sit in the background, pushing content into a central experience, is making more and more sense. That central experience may be something that looks like a notification centre today, or something similar to Google Now, or something entirely new.

So, instead of the browser regaining its lost centrality to the online experience, perhaps the mobile OS usurps the need for so many apps, replacing data pulls with predictive push notifications. Google Now, with its cards automatically displaying snippets of relevant information is an obvious precursor to a more comprehensive solution. As Adams puts it, “This is the beginning of the end for apps as destinations. Why open the app when you don’t need to? Let’s take this a step further.”

We may not see the death of the app, but rather its irrelevance. OS features like predictive notifications and integrated, on-demand, cloud-based app streams could soon replace the need for a hodgepodge of local app installations on billions of devices.

Source: Google’s ‘War On Apps’ Is About Making Them Irrelevant