The Rise Of The Invisible App

If you want someone to use and stick with your app, better make it invisible, says RunKeeper founder Jason Jacobs.

Our phones have become an extension of ourselves, so much that we get anxiety when we leave them at home. Nearly 84% of people worldwide said they couldn’t go a single day without their phone, according to Time. But fewer of us consciously think about the potential for our phones to get to know us, just by virtue of being on us all the time.

Now, wearable technologies like Pebble and Google Glass are changing the way we interact with our phones and how our phones interact with us. With these innovations come big opportunities to transform how we go about our lives. But in order for phones and wearables to be truly transformative, the apps that run on them will need to become invisible.

Wave one of the app revolution has been a great first step. Now you can keep track of your daily calorie intake, your personal spending against budget, find driving directions to your destination, and many other functions that help make our lives easier. But each of these apps still requires a fair bit of work, and as a result, many people aren’t sticking with them over time. This problem is compounded as more apps proliferate, and as people’s overburdened schedules continue to get crazier. A shining example is email. It is engrained in our business culture as an efficiency-driver, but increasingly bogs people down with more and more required actions that disrupt the flow of their workday. Lots of companies are out trying to tackle the email challenge and make the technology more invisible, before people declare email bankruptcy and throw in the towel altogether.

The second wave of the app revolution will be the quest for invisibility. Invisible apps run passively in the background, meaning they are always on collecting data, with no action needed to enable them. The information that they surface is proactive and timely, without you, the consumer, needing to look for it. They leverage many data sources, including other apps, and the more they know about you, the smarter they become. As the technology fades into the background and these apps get better at solving everyday problems effectively, they will become indispensable across more and more aspects of our lives.

This quest for invisibility is already in progress. Google Now, for instance, not only prompts you when it is time to leave for your next meeting, but it tells you which route to take given current traffic patterns—without you having to ask. Uber doesn’t just let you book a taxi from your phone, it shows where the car is in real-time as it approaches, how many minutes away it is, and prompts you as it is arriving so you can head outside just in time. Square doesn’t just enable merchants to accept credit cards via their phones, but also lets you place an order just by saying your name while inside the store.

While these examples may seem like magic, it's only the beginning. As your phone has more sensors in it, and more access to integrated external sensors, it will continue to know more about you and your surroundings. As this occurs, the friction involved in using apps will continue to decrease, and the proactive insight and value that these apps provide will increase exponentially over time.

I’m not claiming the robots will take over quite yet, but as apps become more invisible, we can start to live more productively and get closer to reaching our fullest potential.

—Jason Jacobs is the founder and CEO of RunKeeper. The RunKeeper app turns the phone into a personal trainer in your pocket. With more than 18 million users worldwide, RunKeeper's mission is to create a fitness platform that makes the world healthier at scale.

[Image: Flickr user Scott Robinson]

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5 Comments

  • Mahajan Pravin

    Inspired by article we implemented Bitcoin price monitor. However Apple is not ready for this yet so had to add some GUI to get approved.

  • Mark Kordic

    More than efficiency, this trend could lead to more control of the most valuable asset...time.

  • jonwerner

    Insightful article Jason. Another example of an invisible app I've been using is Move. It runs in the background and is an activity monitor that measure steps as well as fitness workouts automatically. I no longer have to take the phone out to start or stop anything.

  • Jawny Smythe

    "Nearly 84% of people worldwide said they couldn’t go a single day without their phone"
    Where did this stat come from? I couldn't find it in the Time article you linked to. According to the World Bank, only 75% of people in the world even own a phone. Are you just making this stuff up? http://www.rferl.org/content/r...

  • vickytnz

    *sigh* talking about invisible apps is problematic as it implies a logic that doesn't necessarily exist. I think it was Cooper who talked about 'thoughtful' programs: ones that think ahead of you without getting in the way, much like a butler (or in more recent times, a PA).