It is a dangerous game trying to predict the future when software is the driving factor. Empires rise and fall so quickly and unpredictably that even the best minds in Silicon Valley won’t gamble on a guess beyond 24 months, and I don’t pretend to be as smart as they are. I do, however, believe we need to do our best to catch a glimpse of the future’s big picture in order to avoid getting painted into a corner or wasting valuable time and resources on a go nowhere scheme. For that reason, I am willing to make a prediction, and I think a safe one, about the evolution of apps. But first an observation.
Few would debate that Google is today the reigning master of content. They aggregate it from everywhere and put it at the tip of our fingers, regardless of the type of device we use. When it comes to apps, they are currently working toward something called the “universal mobile interface,” which is Geek-speak for a one-stop-shopping app that could very well make the whole concept of single purpose apps obsolete. Allow me to draw two parallels that will cast some light on this development, with the first coming from the world of bricks and mortar.
Not so many decades ago, the only place to buy anything was from a specialty store. If you wanted shoes, you went to a shoe store. If you wanted clothes — a clothing store, and so on. These were the brick and mortar equivalent of the single purpose app, where if you need museum info and tickets, you get the museum app, and so forth. Then came the big-box stores like Wal-Mart, and now in one stop you can get everything you need, from shoes to clothes to garden hoses. This is the brick and mortar equivalent of Google’s “universal mobile interface.” And Google is not the only one trying to develop this holy grail; the other giants of the industry, like Facebook and Apple, are trying to do the same.
My second parallel comes from the online world. Not so very long ago we used specialized search sites for information about specialized things. For example, we used Yelp or Urbanspoon to get information about restaurants. But now we just search for a restaurant on Google, and everything we need to know about the place pops up, including reviews, pictures, directions, etc. Specialized content aggregators like Yelp are being marginalized as Google gobbles up consumer attention and increasingly become the one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about everything.
Now in both cases, not all specialty sites were killed off, but the emergence of the one-stop-shop eliminated some and surely changed where and how the others do business. I predict the same phenomenon will happen with apps. Today, every single hotel, airport, bus service, restaurant, etc., etc. has its own single-purpose app the tourist must download and learn to use. What a pain! Google (and Facebook and all others vying for 100% of your mobile time and attention) know it’s a pain and intend to solve that problem by making their mobile app the one and only place Joe Tourist needs to go to get everything he needs, from airline tickets to museum tickets. Both content and transactions will flow through them because they will have very effectively sandwiched themselves between you and your customer.
If my prediction is accurate (and I think it mostly is), then some single purpose apps will be eliminated, and others will need to change where and how they do business. The lesson here is to develop your app content, and your contractual relationships with software developers, in a way that allows you to make those changes if and when you need to, with a minimum amount of hassle.