3 reasons why users are clearing out their phones and turning to the mobile Web

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // May 12, 2016

Why are users turning to the Web on their phones, and turning off the apps?

The first funeral of an app

Last week one of the most innovative, conscientious and broadly imitated consumer brands posted an unusual message on the home screen of their app. “It’s time to say goodbye,” the message said. “Thanks for supporting the Patagonia iPhone app. Now that our website is beautiful and easy to use on all mobile Web browsers, we will no longer be supporting this app – you may delete it from your device.” The call to action on the single button that remains says, “Visit patagonia.com.” And with that simple message – yet bold move – Patagonia just issued a clarion call among the overwhelming white noise of the app world.

1. Apps are cumbersome and their environment is cluttered.

My wife, Suzy, is frequently frustrated with her cell phone. Regardless of its storage capacity, she fills it with photos and videos (mostly of our kids), and she is constantly deleting apps to free up space. She starts by deleting the frivolous apps that caught her eye, but the novelty quickly wore off. She then moves to apps she uses but doesn’t need. And then she moves to the bare essentials – the apps that serve a utilitarian purpose like the digital equivalent of a Swiss Army tool. By their very nature, apps are space hogs, even with ever-increasing storage capacities on mobile devices. Just check the usage on about anyone’s phone and you will see that a significant portion (often half) is filled with apps. Combine that with the fact that even small businesses have felt the peer pressure to have an app presence, and you have a market bandwagon that is so cluttered, the average user (like my wife) is overwhelmed by the options. And do any of us really need an app that simulates the action of pressing down a stapler? The app market is so full of content-clutter; a new app now needs to be the app world’s equivalent of a sensational reality TV show in order to garner any attention at all. Lastly, and most annoying of all, is the fact that there is no real indexing of relevance in app search. While there are rumors that Google and Apple recognize this fact and may be taking steps to address it, the simple fact remains that Google, in particular, makes the vast majority of its revenue from search relevance, something that the app world lacks. And it’s difficult to see how the app industry could potentially catch up to the search relevance of the Web world anytime soon… or really, ever.

2. The real value of apps is in their utility.

There are a few inherent qualities of apps that differentiate them from a website viewed on a mobile device – namely offline functionality, push notifications and rewards programs. In certain use cases, these three app qualities are extraordinarily beneficial to brands or organizations seeking to provide value to their target audience. I keep the BBC News app, the Southwest Airlines app, Hilton Honors app and, until last week, the Patagonia app on my iPhone for this very reason. But one of the significant downsides is the ever-increasing number in the red bubble above the App Store icon on my phone. The frequency and file size of app updates is especially accelerating the security updates, bug fixes and constant enhancements needed to stay ahead of the curve. The result is update fatigue. So, while it was nice to have the Redbox app on my phone for a while, what I really NEED is my banking app, Evernote and my SignEasy app (since I sign quite a few documents in my vocation). Like my wife and many other users, I’ve trimmed down the apps on my phone to just the bare essentials that serve a purpose that can’t be replicated by a website. This is especially true for apps where I can receive the same information or functionality through a website that doesn’t require constant updates.

3. Unlike apps, the Web is inherently egalitarian.

The most significant reason we may be seeing the zenith of the app bubble right now is a fairly consistent macro-trend in technology. Anytime there is a new piece of technology, it is usually proprietary. The creator of that technology expects to see a return on its investment of research and resources. That means that the technology is closed (like an app store that has proprietary development requirements and an approval process). The creator of the technology attempts to corner the market for as long as possible. But one of the great beauties of the technological realm is its bent toward democracy. Any time the pendulum of access swings too far toward the proprietary end of the continuum, the equal and opposite force of egalitarianism pulls it back toward being open. I think this is part of what we are seeing in the app world. As the ubiquity of apps, the costs associated with maintaining those apps and most importantly the costs associated with making apps stand out, folks have started to realize that the free Web alternative makes sense. That may be what Patagonia foresaw and that what other brands may be starting to realize now that Patagonia has once again boldly stepped toward a seemingly counterintuitive future. And it’s worth noting that Patagonia has a disproportionally large presence on the vanguard of consumer trends, which means they are probably on to something here.