Today's conversation about the value of mobile apps has two basic lines of thought:
(1) Apps are going the way of the dodo. You don't need thousands of apps and icons; you need integrated services. Integrated apps are best.
(2) You need apps because you cannot leverage all the capabilities of a mobile device through a mobile web browser. More apps are best.
The app debate is heated because it's shaping how consumers will use their devices in the future, and how developers will build.
The case for less apps
People like Alyson Shontell and Paul Adams make the case for the first. Apps are currently needed because it's difficult to bring cloud services to a mobile device; progress in the current mobile platforms is breaking the app barrier, making many of them less necessary. This is especially noticeable in communications apps: you don't need several apps for your social media interactions; iOS and Android can take care of most of those services. But then, how do we get to, say, our Instagram and Tumblr? How do I play Angry Birds Epic? There is a long list of things I like to do with my phone-- and many of those things require a dedicated access point. If there isn't one, it becomes cumbersome to navigate to them. Why hide a game I play every day in a sub-folder or under a "Game Center" app? I want to play now! Not in three clicks.
Apps, apps, apps!
The second line of thought is mostly promoted by large platform companies who need a healthy developer ecosystem to make their platform rich and vibrant. It's the logical response to a two-sided business, where consumers end up joining the platform that brings the most utility to them (i.e. is more fun). iOS and Android have the most fun platforms right now; they take the lion's share of users, which attracts more developers that in turn produce more apps. But nobody installs 1.5 Million apps in their phone (it's simply not possible considering device space limitations). We are missing out on thousands of services because we cannot see them, even after installation. I checked my Windows Phone-- with a considerably smaller app ecosystem-- and I have installed over 500 apps at some point. Of the current set of apps installed, there are 25 that I installed and never opened. I can't tell how many apps I opened once and never got back to them. I love having more choice, but I'm also clearly missing out.
The apps or no apps conversation will continue for a long time. I actually believe is a flawed view of the problem.
A better view of the problem: think about services.
The apps or no apps conversation will continue for a long time. I actually believe is a flawed view of the problem. We currently tend to see the app as the wrapper that produces an icon in your phone and lives in a silo. That view of the app is the one that is going away. If we start thinking about the services rather than the wrapper, then we certainly need a vibrant ecosystem of services: I want a service that helps me find the optimal route to get from point A to point B, I need a service that helps me listen to whatever song I want at any time. I want a service that helps me communicate with my team wherever I am, a service that helps me find my next home, and so on. How should those services be represented in our phones, tables, and laptops (and now watches, glasses, and I'm predicting...belts)? Pick the best possible user experience and deliver it that way. Each platform provider can innovate in the best ways to deliver those services. Microsoft does a good job with the People Hub, integrating social media and messaging services into a single experience. You still need Twitter as a service and Facebook as a service for the hub to work, but you don't really need separate apps to get quick updates from your friends.
The battle, then, is for services.
The challenge for ecosystems and services is to get your attention regardless of the wrapper. This becomes more important as end users become more empowered to create solutions of their own, bypassing the developer of the wrapper altogether. Microsoft's People Hub allows you to pick which services appear in the hub and how they appear. There are similar solutions from Android and iOS. The end user then has the power to define how that experience is going to be regardless of the wrapper. They will end up building their own apps and their own wrappers-- plugged into services they care about most.
What services do you care about that need their own wrapper? For what services would you be willing to give up an independent app?