Is there still an app for that?

Apps once drove the success of smartphones, but is it still worth businesses putting time and effort into app development?

In 2018, Apple CEO, Tim Cook announced the App Store had over 20 million developers, with the App Store itself receiving 500 million weekly visits. The app, it seems, continues to be popular: in the third quarter of 2019, there were a total of 29.6 billion app downloads worldwide, according to market research firm Sensor Tower – a 9.7% year-on-year increase overall, with Google Play downloads growing 11.4% to 21.6 billion and App Store downloads growing 5.3% to 8 billion.

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Mobile access to the internet is also growing: According to Ericsson, the total number of mobile subscriptions in Q3 2019 was around eight billion, with 61 million subscriptions added during the quarter. By 2025, 90% of subscriptions are projected to be for mobile broadband.

Smartphone penetration continues to rise,” says Ericsson. “Subscriptions associated with smartphones account for around 70% of all mobile phone subscriptions. It is estimated there will be 5.6 billion smartphone subscriptions by the end of 2019. The number of smartphone subscriptions is forecast to reach 7.4 billion in 2025."

With a massive install base of devices, is the app still the best way for businesses to reach this vast mobile audience? Mobile retail continues to expand, as consumers embrace m-commerce as they did e-commerce, with many familiar names profiting from this trend, such as Amazon and eBay, which remain the most popular sites for mobile access.

In its most recent annual ‘Global State of Mobile’ report, Comscore concludes: "Looking at a snapshot of the retail category in the US, retail apps reached 87% of the total app audience in 2019: a 16% increase since June 2017. Total audience tends to skew 25-54 and female. Interestingly, we still see almost a quarter of time spent consuming retail content on desktop, which may be due to the larger screen real estate that can facilitate a closer examination of online purchases.”

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In-app purchases continue to be highly prevalent in one specific category of apps: Gaming. Research from Deloitte showed gamers, in general, will spend an average of £3.59 per month, or £43.05 a year, on in-app purchases. This rises to over £120 with the 25 to 34 age group. In-app purchases, though, outside of gaming are also accelerating.

Consumers increasingly want integrated shopping experiences. Expect in-app purchasing, in general, to accelerate as m-commerce expands. However, care should be taken not to frustrate app users. In research carried out by Kantar Media for Ofcom, one male teen, for instance, told researchers: “I would download a free app and the next thing you know it is 69p to get to such and such a level, even though they said it was free in the first place.”

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“Currently, when speaking on omnichannel, we often speak to a presence on each one,” says Sean Farrington, AVP of Interactive Development at LiveArea. "We have a native app, or two. We have a desktop app and also skill on Alexa. Each of these is unique and sadly, almost entirely independent. Technologies, such as PWA (Progressive Web Apps), Service Worker, and Notification APIs supported by personalised content and marketing, will prompt us to redefine our multichannel strategy.”

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He adds: “Rather than focusing on a unique presence on each channel, we will begin to see this as a single application, unified across all the channels. This allows us to be more perceptive in how and when we engage with our customers and offers us a whole new world of touchpoints and possibilities. It will also allow us to provide intelligence when choosing the channel to engage upon.”

App fatigue and originality

With the app now over ten years old, are consumers still using the app as their primary channel for accessing services? According to research from Comscore, the answer is yes. In the UK, 86% of mobile minutes are spent using apps. Social media (88%), lifestyle (85%), and coupons and incentive (79%) are the top categories for mobile app usage.

The sheer number of apps available on the app stores has often been pointed to as an issue with regards to discoverability and why the longevity of an app on a user’s phone can be so short. Ofcom’s research suggests consumers are not ready to give up their apps.

“App users appear to have a strong functional reliance and emotional attachment to apps,” the report states. “As part of the research process, participants were asked to live without apps for a day. The absence of apps during this deprivation exercise left many feeling frustrated. Teens and younger adults, in particular, worried about being excluded from their social circle without access to apps.”

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To reduce app fatigue and increase install rates, apps need to be useful initially, but the key to long-term connections is to ensure your business' apps stay engaging and of practical use. Apps that are not updated regularly, don't communicate with their users via push notifications, and don't integrate with other areas of your business will be quickly uninstalled.

Speaking to IT Pro, Raj Bawa, operations director at JBi Digital says: "I wouldn't consider app fatigue to be a major challenge for those using the app channel, as apps are there to make life easier for businesses. Apps go a long way in boosting the productivity of businesses, though it’s true there is a level of fatigue from a consumer perspective. To prevent such fatigue from taking place, developers need to consider providing application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow the software to be installed and maintained much more easily."

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If an app is an appropriate component of your business, making it as relevant and engaging as possible will combat app fatigue. Rob Sandbach, managing director at Manchester-based digital design agency Indiespring, says: "It's a problem if your app performs the same task as a handful of identical apps and it's an even bigger issue if your app does the same thing, but worse. App fatigue can be easily avoided if your app adds true value to the users' day and does it better than any competing options out there. It comes down to user experience – you need to be constantly on the ball to protect that by measuring app performance and user engagement."

An appy future

Analysis by Adjust shows, on average, apps will be deleted around six days after they have been installed. The highest attrition rate is for entertainment and lifestyle apps, with the best performers being in the e-Commerce, travel and health categories. Consumers want apps that not only fulfil an immediate need but that also, continue to be useful.

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This approach is supported by Ashley Friedlein, founder of Econsultancy and Guild, who tells IT Pro: "Mobile usage is only increasing, as is app usage. It will be hard to break the monopoly of the 'mega apps' that take up the most app usage time. However, the success of Snapchat and now TikTok show that it is still possible to create colossal traction very quickly through apps. Alongside the mega apps there is always room for more focused apps that do a particular thing very well." 

The accelerating development of 5G and its inherent low latency could open a new era for apps that require a constant and fast connection to the mobile internet. Where many apps in the past have been handicapped by low bandwidth, this should disappear if the promises being made for 5G become a reality for every user.

If your business has yet to invest in app development, or you are about to upgrade your existing apps, the Ofcom report offers some insight that can be used to ensure the new apps your company creates will find their audience. 

"App users stated various criteria that they felt described their 'best apps', including being quick and easy to use; being reliable and not crashing; performing the functions described, and having appealing aesthetics,” the report states. “When asked to consider criteria for their 'best apps', there was little mention of safety and security. These did not appear to be front-of-mind for participants due to a lack of negative experiences with apps."

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Speaking to IT Pro, Alex Froom, chief product officer and founder of Zipabout, explains: "Where do we currently stand with the native or web app debate? It's horses for courses. Unfortunately, it was web-app capabilities that opened app development to organisations lacking the commercial capability to build good apps. The result: an oversaturation of rubbish apps. Rather than focusing on native versus web, what's more of an issue is the ease of development and whether you need an app at all."

LiveArea’s Farrington adds: "I think the recognition of the importance of the mobile channel, particularly within m-commerce, has already set upon us. Over the next year or two, I think the focus will be more around how a business can refine their brand, strategy, and marketing efforts to adapt to, and take advantage of, a wide new array of opportunities the channel presents us. Differentiation, amongst competitors on the mobile channel, will become the primary battleground, and it will be won by companies that put themselves in a position to understand their customer regarding their brand."

From a business perspective, the 'mobile-first' approach is now the norm. No matter which category or market your business trades within, having a mobile strategy is critical. Accessing services from fast food delivery to travel, and of course, social media, the app continues to dominate all other access channels

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