At the end of 2013, there were more than one million apps apiece in the respective stores of Apple and Google, with both stores well over the 50bn downloads mark.
Apps have made their presence felt across a swathe of industries: from entertainment, publishing and games through to the enterprise and education sectors.
Apps have attracted big investments, generated lucrative acquisitions and made billions of dollars in revenues, yet they’ve also sparked debate around privacy, regulation and the question of whether they are fuelling another dotcom-style bubble that’s destined to pop.
And so to 2014. What will be the big trends around apps and the developers, startups and brands that are making and releasing them? Here are a few thoughts.
1. An apps crash is coming (but that’s a good thing)
Apple’s recently-released figures for 2013 sounded good: $8bn paid out to iOS developers over the year. But with a million apps, that’s an average of around $8k per app. A relatively small number of apps are making big money, and a lot of apps are making diddly-squat. Which isn’t necessarily a problem: many of them are a.) rubbish and b.) spare time or hobbyist projects.
In the middle, though, that’s where a crash is coming: for example startups that raised seed and/or venture financing but didn’t catch on, or which managed to find some users but are struggling to make money from them. Photo-sharing apps, health-tracking tools, freemium games, messaging apps… wherever there’s an overstuffed category, there’s going to be a cull in 2014.
This, all things considered, is a good thing. This year feels like a survival-of-the-fittest moment, although that hopefully means some of the people who failed will come back with new ideas, wiser for the lessons learned first time round.
But if 2012 and 2013 saw lots of app startups “pivot” in search of an audience and business model, 2014 will see many run out of money with no more turning to be done. On the bright side, those with good technology will find willing “acquihirers” in the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple and others.
2. iOS and Android still front-of-mind for developers
Crashing bores can vent for hours online why iOS is better than Android, or vice versa. The truth is that most serious app developers now come to market with a strategy encompassing both. iOS is still generating more revenues for developers, but Android has massive reach – depending on the specifics of your business and the parts of the world you’re targeting, they deserve equal priority.
Does that mean releasing new apps on both platforms simultaneously? Not always. Over 2013, a lot more apps did debut day-and-date across iOS and Android, but smaller app startups in particular still regularly launch, iterate and polish on iOS before porting to Android. The difference is they’ll have firm plans for that porting process from the start, which didn’t used to be the case.
Expect to see even the most iOS-focused app categories putting more emphasis on Android. Children’s apps are a good example: until recently, developers of kids’ apps didn’t see a viable market on Android, but strong sales of Android tablets (I’d say four in five parents I know who bought a tablet for their children this Christmas opted for a Kindle Fire or a Tesco Hudl, for example) are helping to change that.
Beyond iOS and Android? Microsoft has done a pretty good job of identifying the most popular apps that are still lacking on Windows Phone, then chasing them down. The gap between apps breaking big on rivals and appearing on Windows Phone can still be frustrating for owners – no Clash of Clans, QuizUp or Candy Crush Saga yet, to name but three of 2013’s biggest games. Microsoft (including Nokia, soon) will need to keep up its efforts.
3. Privacy as a priority
The recent Snapchat hack – and the subsequent arguments over whether the company did enough to apologise to users for it – has sharpened the debate around apps and privacy. As have the ongoing revelations about intelligence agencies’ electronic surveillance, and a growing realisation beyond the technology community that free online services (whether mobile or not) are ultimately selling something to somebody – and if you’re not paying, it’s probably your data.
This already feels a bit old to geeks like me, but the point is that this realisation is crossing over to the hundreds of millions of normal people who now own smartphones and use apps like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Skype, MyFitnessPal and any number of Google services. When apps play fast and loose with privacy, and/or get hacked, the collective freakout will travel faster and further than ever.
4. A more constructive debate around free-to-play gaming
People who comment on online articles about mobile free-to-play gaming hate it. F2P is evil, it’s killing gaming, and the developers who make freemium games are intent on producing soulless, cynical, cash-grabbing software that relies on players being too stupid to realise they’re being milked.
Meanwhile, these commenters’ mums, their dads, their aunts, uncles, cousins and “non-gamer” friends are playing F2P games by the bucketload – and loving the experience. They don’t tend to comment on online articles about these games: they’re too busy nailing level 172 of Candy Crush Saga.
I don’t expect the angry comments to abate any time soon, but I think the debate could be more constructive in 2014. Why are some freemium games soulless and cynical, and others not? Let’s call out the former, and celebrate the latter, so that developers can learn the lessons of both and make better games. Less“Freemium is evil”, and more “Here’s how freemium can be not evil”.
That will require some evolution in accepted ways to make money from free games. Timers, for example. If your game’s business model even partially relies on stopping me playing it, rather than from making me love it, you’ve failed creatively. 2013 provided masses of data on how different “monetisation” (ugh!) methods work, but 2014 will be the year when that data informs more great games, rather than dominates mediocre ones.
5. Messaging apps spread their wings
The rapid growth of messaging apps, from WeChat, Line and KakaoTalk in the East to WhatsApp, Kik, Snapchat (again) and the deBlackBerryfied BBM was one of the big mobile stories of 2013, providing the background for much of the speculation about whether teenagers were set to flee Facebook, just as their parents had fled Myspace before them.
2014 should give us a firm answer on the latter trend – my instinct is that teens aren’t quitting Facebook, it’s just that they’re making a clear division between that social network for communication with their families, and others to communicate with their friends – but it will also emphasise that most messaging apps are about much more than messaging.
Games, shopping, music and video and broader social networking features are the obvious first directions that these apps are already heading in. Working more with brands is going to be a key trend in 2014 though: brands and agencies will come flocking in an attempt to reach people who are no longer as engaged with Facebook, but it’s not yet obvious how they can best fit in without seeming intrusive.
6. New platforms, new gimmicks. But then what?
Smart watches! Google Glass! Connected cars! Fridges! The rise of wearables, in-car app platforms and the Internet of Things means pretty much every whizzy startup is thinking about how to put their apps on devices other than smartphones and tablets. In many cases, it’s about the (undeniably-interesting) technological challenge of doing it, rather than a firm sense of why it should be done.
“Company X launches app for Wearable Device Y” is going to be a particularly-recurring headline in 2014, and that’ll be about all they’re good for: headlines. A lot of these apps’ main function will be to shift notifications from your smartphone to your wrist or eyes. That’s not really interesting.
But behind that first wave will come the good stuff: apps made for the people and their behaviour, rather than just for the hardware. What might normal people (i.e. nobody who’s got one yet) want from Glass-style augmented eyewear? What do normal people (i.e. nobody who’s got one yet) want a smart watch to do?
Those answers may not come until 2015, but there are steps that can be taken in 2014. Forget the regular speculation over whether Google Glass will go on sale this year. I’d rather see Google recruit hundreds of new Glass Explorers in India, Brazil, China, Kenya, Russia… A much fuller spread of nationalities, races, professions, ages, financial situations.
Then we’ll know more about what kind of apps to make for that kind of device.
7. Education, education, education
2014 feels like a big year for apps – and by extension tablets – in education. Initiatives are already well underway around the world to get tablets into classrooms, from affordable Android devices in India to iPads in California. Yes, a growing number of children have access to them at home, but schools will be key in ensuring those that don’t aren’t left on the other side of a new digital divide.
So what will schools put on these tablets? It feels like a big moment for developers making educational apps and services to redouble their efforts, in the knowledge that there will be a market for their products. Which raises all kinds of interesting questions about how education authorities, schools and individual teachers decide what apps to use, and how they dovetail with the existing curriculum.
Actually, though, there’s something else to think about: children making apps, not just using them. Kids are learning to code all over the world, with different schemes and tools. In 2013, there were regular novelty stories about 13 year-olds who’d made their first app. In 2014, we’ll lay off the patronising novelty aspect, and start thinking about the real, exciting implications of the Minecraft generation crafting with code as well as with blocks.
8. Step into my office
Many of the most innovative apps in 2014 will only be used by a few hundred or thousand people. That’s because they’ll be developed by companies for their staff to use: enterprise apps. They don’t tend to get much press – partly because they’re not publicised, but also because we journalists find it easier to get to grips with consumer apps.
But in terms of resources and innovation, the B2B apps field is where a lot of the most interesting work is currently going on, including solving some of the problems (security in particular) that consumer apps are only just realising is a harder challenge than they’d realised.
Apps aren’t a lone actor here: they’re part of wider trends around remote working and collaboration that really are (and sorry, it’s a cliché) changing the way people and companies do business. Watch closely for the rising numbers of tablets (Apple, Android and Windows alike) making their way into workplaces, and then think about the software that’s being developed for them that will never appear on an app store.
9. Disruption versus regulation
Disruptive app innovation? Yay! Regulation and stuck-in-the-mud industries? Boo! That was the tone of the debate at many a tech conference in 2013 as Uber, Airbnb and others chafed at the barriers put in their way by city authorities and regulators. Why shouldn’t people be able to rent out their spare room to strangers or use their smartphone to book a ride from a non-taxi car?
The leading lights of the “sharing economy” pride themselves on their companies’ disruptive qualities, but the debate around this can often feel like an “are you with us or against us?” situation. Criticise these startups, and you’re part of the entrenched interests of the old economy.
We’ll see more of this in 2014. Sometimes it’ll be cities slapping silly penalties on sharing-economy startups, like Uber drivers having to wait for 15 minutes before picking up a passenger in France. But sometimes there will be legitimate debates about the way these companies manage their businesses, and the responsibilities they take – for example the recent debate about a fatal road accident involving an Uber driver.
People are evangelical about sharing-economy startups and their apps, for good reason. Even so, 2014 will be a year to tackle the outdated legislation and anti-competitive behaviour that prevents these companies getting a fair shot, while also remembering that regulation itself has an important purpose in protecting people on both sides of the transactions fuelled by the sharing economy.
10. Time to think about putting down the device?
In December 2012, my son was in his school nativity play. I rushed up at the end, proud as punch, and started taking photos – Facebook and Instagram in mind. Then I noticed that he was much moister-eyed than usual. Being in the play had been a bit overwhelming, and what he wanted was a cuddle, not his own personal paparazzo.
I was ashamed. In December 2013, when the situation repeated itself, I rushed up and gave him a cuddle. The photos came later. But that moment a year before was a proper, much-needed slap in the face about priorities. And here’s a hunch: more people will experience some kind of personal moment of truth like this in 2014.
It might be couples realising that they sit on the sofa every evening cycling through social networks on their smart devices rather than talking to one another. It might be people realising they’ve stopped reading books in bed in favour of checking smartphones. It might be realising that a forest is amazing because it’s a forest, and not rubbish because you can’t check email over GPRS.
Anecdotally, I hear more friends talking about making an effort to rein in their device usage in 2014, making space for conversation, cuddles, culture… life! This may still be a middle-class problem, yes. But if it’s a wider trend, I wonder if it will also reward developers whose apps are more sensitive to these desires – or even help us fulfil them.
This may be wishful thinking, but I’m an optimist. The most innovative apps in 2014 might just be the ones that help us to put our devices away a little more often.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Image: Cristiano Betta