We're on the verge of a new app revolution
As I sit here writing this article, I’m listening to an album by Jon Hopkins that Apple Music recommended to me. The lights in my apartment have dimmed slightly, as the sun is setting soon. My watch is telling me that I haven’t moved that much today, so after writing this, I guess I’ll head out for a walk, and watch that sunset. Tomorrow, as I run down the stairs, I’ll check my phone to find the quickest route to work. But my phone might as well recommend me using your service on my way to work. If you had something I needed or wanted, and you were able to help me out in seconds, how could I resist?
So, what is an app anyway?
Only recently have people stopped asking us in Shortcut if apps are a concept that are going to last. When the App Store opened about twelve years ago, no one was really sure why people were supposed to be using apps. Was it for marketing? Was it for entertainment? And, little by little, these small screens were able to do some stuff we originally did not expect them to. These days, you check your phone more times than you’re willing to admit (I’ve checked my phone 102 times today). We use it for everything – tickets, paying for services, checking if you’re gonna make the bus, starting revolutions or just for killing time. You seldom even think when you check your phone. For me, I automatically open my phone walking down the stairs in the morning to check what the quickest way to work is. On my way out of the office, I put my earbuds in and play a podcast, updating myself on what goes on in the world.
To think that the App Store is only twelve years old is to me completely crazy. To think that I was that disconnected from the rest of the world waiting for the bus, is weird. Like most great technology, it makes you reflects on how you could ever live without it.
Bill Gates once said that “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”, adding “Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”. Ten years ago, it was impossible to imagine the world that we now live in. In my imagination there were way more flying cars.
The next ten years
As an iOS-developer I update myself on what Apple has planned for the future, every year at WWDC. Short for Worldwide Developers Conference, it’s the place where Apple announces the tools that us developers can use in order to create apps and services that change how you live your life. It’s always obvious that the tools that they announce are part of a bigger plan regarding how they see people working alongside technology. Sometimes these changes come fast (like when Steve Jobs announces the first iPhone) and sometimes they kind of sneak up on you.
The last few years, Apple has had a focus on Siri, a voice assistant that has seemed kind of half finished. You can ask questions, control your home or do timers (Siri is my kitchen buddy!). They’ve also branded some of the predition technology they’ve made as Siri Suggestions. When you swipe down on your iOS device to search, Siri suggests some apps that it thinks you’re going to search for, based on various factors. For me, it shows me public transport apps when I’m walking down my stairs on my way to work and my podcast app on my way from work. I don’t really have to search for apps any more. Siri already knew what I was looking for.
The escape of the apps
In recent years , the apps and the services they provide, hasn’t really only been hidden behind their app icons. Their functionality has been sneaking out, through widgets, universal search (showing data from apps when you’re searching), notifications and through Siri. Apple has the last years pushed for their developers to implement intents and Shortcuts (we do love that name!) which is essentially just functionality escaping their behind-the-icon, “app-prison”. To explain app intents very simply – it is what your app can do or provide.
So, what can your app do? Well, in the example of a podcast app, it can play a specific podcast, control playback, find new podcasts, recommend new podcasts, tell you when a new podcast is available etc. As a user does these actions, the developer can register these intents as fulfilled in the system. By telling the system when a user has done an action, the system can then calculate when to present buttons to perform that specific action at various places in the Apple ecosystem. In my case, that means that both my watch and my phone can show me a button to start playing the latest episode of the podcast The Daily on my way from work, as that specifically is what I tend to listen to in that particular situation. That is way clearer than just knowing that I might like the podcast app on my way home. It speeds up the time I spent fulfilling my intent.
Steve Jobs once called computers a bicycle for the mind. The goal is to make the road from idea to execution shorter. Often, that is all technology does for you. And if we think about the word intent in a broader sense, an intent could be anything. It could be me ordering a cup of coffee on my way to work. Technology-wise, it isn’t hard for my phone to recommend that I should order my usual coffee from the café next to my place of work, when I’m on my way there. And by handling the payment, all I really need to say is “yes” and pick up the coffee.
With great power, comes great responsibility
Just to take a quick left turn here. What we’re talking about here is making a computer decrease time from idea to execution, mainly by the computer continuously asking itself what a person is interested in, or is likely to do next. To see people go from idea to execution instantly is what makes Jackass funny, so I totally understand you if you’re thinking that it might be a bad idea.
To me, the biggest offenders of people taking this challenge too lightly are services like Facebook or Youtube. They’re trying to keep you engaged as long as possible using these same tools. There are a lot of stories about people who’ve ended up with extremist views, as these services just showed them things that kept them on their sites (check out the podcast Rabbit Hole if you’re interested in this topic). We also have the story of Cambridge Analytica, who knew so much about what people liked and disliked, that they could steer an election in their favor.
We do not want that. We want to create bicycles for people’s minds. We want to help, not steer. And while I’m on that topic – be careful about how much and what kind of data you collect. If you collect data in hopes of being able to steer at some point, I don’t think your business is viable.
A few years ago we made an app for a phone service provider. What they wanted was an app that showed their users how much data their subscription had, and how much data they had used. We saw that the users just wanted to stay in control. That was their goal. They feared getting a massive invoice, just because they had spent hours streaming Netflix, when they hadn’t realized that they’d used up their data quota.
What we recommended the client was to make an app that users really didn’t need to open. Our idea was to just send the users a message if they used more than they usually used, and if they were closing in on their limit. That would’ve solved users’ need – to be in control. But the company said they just wanted a normal app, because they thought it might be a good marketing platform at some point. Which makes sense, but at the same time, not. Does a phone service provider need to market to a person who is currently paying monthly? If that person does switch service providers, they will immediately switch back if the new provider doesn’t warn them that they were closing in on their data quota when they’re watching Modern Family on Netflix, again.
That phone service provider does no longer exist.
The service revolution
I’m telling you this story to make you reflect on what your service is. If you don’t do that reflection, the market will do that for you. People want simple. If your service is any good, they are going to use it. But they won’t be steered. I know it might hurt, but they don’t want you, they want what you provide (imagine if my girlfriend told me that!). And if they have to choose between providers, they’re likely to choose the shortest route from idea to execution. Your brand might be interesting in some way, but people won’t even get to know your brand if you don’t take their need seriously. If you’re not working on how to make your customer reach their goals in the easiest way possible, what are you even doing?
“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”. You might survive the next two years, but what about the next ten years? Hey, I don’t know. What I’m pretty certain of though, is that the way we interact with a service won’t look like it does today. It won’t be confined to being stowed away behind an app icon. You’ll simply use the service, without even thinking about it.
If you had something I needed or wanted, and you were able to help me out in seconds, how could I resist? Welcome to the service revolution. Brought to you by apps.
Now, time to check out that sunset.