Apps are coming at us from all directions, and they're getting both more sophisticated and simpler—the app economy is booming. But as everyone and their dog makes something they deem fit to call an "app," the supply will arrive like a flood. Then what will we do as a consumer society—wallow, sink, or swim? And if everyone's building an app, do we ever need to buy one?
Last week Spotify added a powerful gateway into its system by enabling third-party apps to work inside its streaming music system. It's a response, Spotify says, to many customer requests for it to add this or that additional facility...and instead of doing this piecemeal, the company has decided to let third-party developers build them. That'll certainly satisfy many requests, and it'll also enable many surprising app additions that we may never have previously thought of.
The thing is, writing an app for Spotify isn't necessarily a very tricky thing. The chap behind an existing fun web app called MusicMaze, Paul Lamere, has already had a go, and reported that it's surprisingly easy: "Since the Spotify App version runs inside Spotify, my app doesn’t have to worry about displaying album art, showing the currently playing song, album and artist name, managing a play queue, support searching for an artist. Spotify will do all that for me." The entire environment, he notes, is familiar to anyone who's made a modern web app. Of course, Lamere's task was made simpler because his app was already music-centric, and thus Spotify itself could shoulder some of the tasks. But with many Spotify apps likely to involve mere clever management of playlists—the shared versions of which are one of Spotify's biggest charms—then it's plausible many passionate people would be tempted to compile and submit an "app," even if they'd never tried to before.
Add to this the increasing number of apps within Facebook, and the ever-increasing number of systems that say that they'll let you write an app for, say, the iPhone, even without you even having to know any code, and you've got an interesting situation: More and more apps, that may be relatively simple, if useful or fun, will be hitting the public soon. Systems like Facebook or Spotify may become app-writer farms, as coders cut their teeth on a simple in-app app, then move on to bigger and better things.
The definition of an app itself may be expanding, too, as apps arrive on more platforms. Assuming Apple launches a connected TV in 2012, then it's almost beyond belief that it wouldn't have a specific app store just for its TV offering—the capabilities are just too tempting, from in-show Twitter discussions to show-related advertising, to the ability to actually buy products demonstrated on your favorite gardening/sci-fi/reality TV show (something eBay is recently getting into). If that works out, then Apple will be selling you apps through its iTunes App Store for your iPod, iPad, and iPhone, and perhaps the TV App Store for the iTV—plus apps from the Mac App Store for your Mac ... things that until recently you may have named simply "software."
Then there's the Android app marketplace—with apps showing up for every flavor of Android device. It's just been suggested that we're about to break through the one million app count for major platforms, like iOS and Android—just for existing devices. Remember too the small but surprising new category of smart watches. And when in the coming years our cars are more connected-up, we'll be buying apps for them too.
This is confusing. And that is actually one big risk—we'll all get fed up of the label "app" being slapped on every bit of additional code for all our gadgets from every variant of an "app store." Will we then tire of paying $0.79 for every tweak and flashy extra? That's a potential outcome in a dynamic market-driven system like this. Marketers could then go into overdrive to get their particular apps noticed among the flood.
There's also the risk that oversupply of "apps," of the simpler sort, will leave us reluctant to pay for any of them at all—leaving developers stumped on how to generate money, apart from serving up adverts with everything (with Amazon's ad-supported Kindles as an early example of how this trend might go).
The team at Thunder::tech Marketing, which has recently been involved in promoting apps on iOS, Android, and connected TV platforms, spoke to Fast Company, and they had this to say about this potential oversupply of apps: "The issue of having an abundance or oversupply of apps will hopefully be mitigated by companies that recognize their content must work on multiple screen sizes. While you can serve up the same content to a mobile user, a tablet user, and a IETV user, you have to take advantage of the screen size." The companies' experiences lead it to believe "successful apps and ones that rise to the top add appropriate visual appeal and interaction (bigger screens can mean more people using your app at the same time) to keep your audience coming back. We’ve also seen certain app publishers gaining a fan base. If you get the reputation of developing clean, easy-to-use apps, folks will seek you out on every platform they can—so when they buy a new TV or new phone, or even a new car, they’re going to search for your app or your company all over again."
Already as app numbers swell, Thunder::tech's clients' needs demand different marketing solutions: "We’ve resorted to traditional and non-traditional forms to get the word out—blogging and social media, mentions in print advertising, and tradeshow promotion," notes Jason Therrien, president. "We’ve also participated in various advertising networks that get our apps in front of our target audience." This marketing problem is only going to get trickier for marketers, and also for consumers as the number of apps on different platforms swells.
Of course, U.K. retailers, for one example, are counting on their dedicated apps to help achieve extra sales in the Christmas holiday shopping season. And apps on devices like TV will lead to all sorts of emergent behaviors that'll bring about many changes—perhaps whole new industries.
In short, you're about to see the word "app" more and more every day, covering an ever-broader definition of what an "app" is as app stores move from being billion-dollar marketplaces into trillion-dollar ones. And will you then tire of it, and yearn for simpler times? Someone's surely developing a little program right now, that, when installed on your mobile device, will help answer that question.