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You don’t need me to tell you how important apps are. They might not, as Apple claims, be more important as the Industrial Revolution, but they’re still pretty important. They’ve changed everything about the way we consume entertainment, communicate, and stay informed. It’s happened pretty quickly too. The Apple app store only opened in 2008 and is today home to more than 1.4-million apps. But is the app’s time almost over? Are we about to enter the post-app era?
If technology research house Gartner is to be believed then we may well be. It believes that as virtual assistants such as Google Now, Cortana, and Siri continue to evolve and become smarter, the single-function apps we’re familiar with today will gradually disappear into the background until eventually we’re no longer aware that they’re even there.
It’s a compelling thesis, but does it really hold muster?
Answers in the algorithms
To a large degree, the answer to that question lies in exactly how advanced the algorithms powering those virtual assistants could become. Gartner predicts that by 2020, it says, smart agents such as Google Now, Siri, and Cortana will facilitate 40% of the interactions people have with technology on a daily basis. In the same year, it predicts, Cortana will become more important to Microsoft’s overall strategy than Windows.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll spend 40% of your talking to your phone, asking it to do things. For the most part, it’ll already be doing them for you. If you’re an Android user, you’ll already have seen how rapidly Google Now has evolved, especially when it comes to integrated schedule management. The same is true of Siri. Cortana meanwhile is naturally trying to trump both.
But even if you haven’t used your phone’s voice command functions in a while, you should give it a bash. You’ll be surprised at how far things have come since Siri first landed on the iPhone back in late 2011.
There are still limitations, of course, but the fact that gaming consoles, TVs, and other devices are now launching with voice command capabilities suggests that device manufacturers believe that the technology will only become more ubiquitous, adaptive and easier to use.
We’re still a long way from the kind of scenario imagined in the 2013 near-future hit Her, but it’s definitely what the major players in the space are aiming for.
Apple, Google, and the end of the app
That rings just as true for Apple and Google as it does for anyone else. As much as they’ve benefited from the rise of the app, they’re also leading the way when it comes to killing the single feature app.
Read more: The role of apps in the Always-On business
As a June article published on Wired notes, the first signs of this came Google debuted Now on Tap, which allows you to access Google Now features from within apps. Apple followed suit shortly thereafter, launching Proactive, a Siri upgrade which lets iOS reach inside apps to surface data and link functionality without having to open them from your home screen.
Extrapolate that forward a few years, and Gartner’s suggestion that apps will slowly disappear into the background suddenly doesn’t seem all that strange. There are, of course, risks. Apps have become a multi-billion dollar industry (although the majority of app revenue is split between a very small number of developers). By pushing those apps further into the background, Google and Apple risk alienating developers.
As that Wired article notes, there’s also a chance users won’t take kindly to apps disappearing from their home screens:
The App Store has trained us to equate “install” with “try out”—and those innocuous little squares visually reinforce the idea that anything we put “on” an iPhone is low-risk and easily reversible, much like applying a sticker or decal. Take away those reassuring squares, and the psychological energy barrier of swapping apps in and out might become significant.
Thing is, it’s unlikely to happen immediately. The transition will be gradual and, as long as the user experience is a good one, people most likely won’t care who built it.
Outside of those considerations, Google and Apple have other reasons for pushing apps into the background. The most important of those reasons is that doing so means that they can simplify their overall ecosystems. If they can provide a “frictionless” experience between your phone, car, TV, and the increasingly large number of connected “things” in our lives, then choosing one or the other becomes far more compelling.
It’s why both Google and Apple now have plays in the automotive, home entertainment, health tech, and wearable spaces, among others. It’s also why OS X now shares so many features that originally appeared on iOS and why Microsoft is so determined to make Windows 10 work on whatever device it’s installed on.
Right now, device manufacturers are hedging their bets in a bid to avoid ending up on the wrong side of history. A number of car makers, for instance, provide support for both Android Auto and CarPlay in their newest vehicles.
Hardware and software makers alike are adopting similar approaches in a variety of fields. Right now it’s all pretty messy, but it’s also clear that we’re moving toward something far more structured.
A pause for perspective
At this point, it’s probably worth noting that while we’re undoubtedly headed for a future in which apps — in the guise of little square tiles — matter less, they’re not going to disappear overnight. To those of us experiencing it, the change will be gradual. Remember, less than half of the world’s mobile subscriber base currently own smartphones. And remember the specifics of that Gartner prediction we mentioned earlier: 40% of interactions will be with smart agents by 2020. ‘
That still leaves plenty of room for apps, at least for now.