It’s easy to be wrong about the future, but I suspect we’re beginning to see the end of the app era. In fact, Steve Jobs – one of the most accurate prognosticators ever – didn’t plan for an app-centric world when the first iPhone launched. Like so many of his visions, it was a decade too early.
Apps were great then because they ran fast, even with slow connections, and could use features like the camera or GPS. Users downloaded them, meaning they worked to some extent even without an Internet connection. Developers could make money. It was win-win.
A lot has changed; 4G LTE, HTML5 and faster processing power mean mobile websites run well now. Some offer a truly fantastic experience (games aren’t quite there yet).
Competitive pressure from Android means more phone functionality is accessible from the browser, including location and camera (on Android), and iOS7 allows websites to push notifications. Long-term, in spite of Apple’s vested interest in apps having more functionality than mobile websites, they’re destined to have feature parity. As Internet access becomes more pervasive (even now on parts of the NYC subway), the use case of offering offline access becomes less convincing.
The App Store is overwhelming, and developers have to pay to get meaningful visibility. Search and social, meanwhile, help people find what they need on the mobile web, and developers can optimize for both.
Finally, developers must maintain two apps on separate code bases (iOS and Android) to be relevant. Throw in laptop Luddites, and you’re up to three separate platforms. The case for developing one, responsively designed web solution that handles multiple screen sizes is a winner.
Should businesses stop building apps? Now, probably not. But they should consider the rationale and whether it makes sense against larger objectives.
For selling online, the mobile web is the way to go (55% of Walmart.com’s Cyber Monday sales were mobile!). Prospects won’t take the time to download and run your app—they are won through search, social and other marketing channels, anyway.
If a company has a strong relationship with a large, existing base of customers, and gives them a compelling reason to download an app, it still makes sense: see HBO GO or the Chase app that lets users deposit checks using the camera on a mobile device.
But those are increasingly becoming exceptions. Soon, there won’t need to be "an app for that."
*This article was originally published by The Economist.