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Peak app

Not all that many years ago, the then most popular computing platform, Windows, boasted a few tens of thousands of applications. By comparison, the Macintosh platform typically featured an order of magnitude fewer applications (though Mac aficionados would have always said it was quality that mattered most, and of course, how many apps did a platform actually need?).

Then, along came the iPhone, followed by Android, then Windows Phone, and BlackBerry 10, and suddenly the number of apps on a platform became a critical measure of the health of that platform’s ecosystem. From thousands, suddenly tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands were available on individual platforms, and soon millions of apps will be available on each of iOS and Android.

Which must be good right? More apps means more developer interest, and no one would be doing all this unless there’s dollars to be made (and posses to waste). Right?

The Hubbert Peak

You’ve likely not heard of M. King Hubbert, but you’ve heard of his “peak theory“, better known as “peak oil”.

The Hubbert peak theory says that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil-producing region to the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production tends to follow a bell-shaped curve. It is one of the primary theories on peak oil.

(By the way, Hubbert proposed this nearly 60 year ago). One of the consequences of Hubbert’s observation is that over time, more and more investment needs to go into extracting the same amount of oil from the same region. A classic “law of diminishing returns”.

Lately I’ve been thinking of peak oil as a metaphor for what is happening with the ever growing number of mobile, tablet, and other computing platforms. When the only smartphone that really mattered was the iPhone, extracting value as a developer (that is, gaining the attention of, and ideally payments from, users) was relatively straightforward. But as

  • the number of form factors of each platform increases
  • the number of OS versions of each platforms increases (consider the fragmentation of Android, before you even get to the carrier and manufacturer variants)
  • the number of applications on each platforms increases

extracting value from any given platform becomes increasingly expensive. For example, Marco Arment refers to the situation of a seeming hyper niche, iPad Teleprompter Apps, of which there are 40!

And where once there were many untapped “oil producing regions” (new users of smart phones, new smart phone and tablet platforms, new areas of focus for apps) it’s now not just individual regions that are becoming less productive, the entire native “planet” is becoming more and more difficult to extract value from.

In short, we’re approaching, or may have even reached “peak app”.

OK, beyond being cute, where might we look to find evidence of such a peak? Well, recently, we’ve seen the most significant update to OS since iOS 2 (which introduced what I called then the “great leap backwards“)—Apps.

And yet. What did iOS7 really introduce? Certainly a dramatic overhaul of the appearance of the platform (requiring the developers of those hundreds of thousands of apps to overhaul the appearance of their apps, or risk being left behind). But beyond the superficial? What amazing new features does it provide app developers (who aren’t already overloaded by adding translucency to every last pane of their app?) Slightly better background functionality and multitasking.

Meanwhile, with millions of new iPhones sold in such a short period after the launch of the new iPhone 5s and 5c, at least some of which you’d think were to users new to the iOS platform, you’d expect boom times for developers. And yet, that’s not what seems to be happening.

Mashable has spoken with half a dozen high-profile iOS developers who have all reported seeing lower sales from their paid applications — regardless of how well the app ranks on the charts

Mashable, the State of Paid Apps

Mashable isn’t alone in making this observation. Here’s some recent thoughts from Tapity, developers of the Apple Award winning, highly successful, Hours, among other apps. “Yep, paid apps are dead” (referring to the founder and developer of Instapaper Marco Arment’s, recent observation “Paid-up-front iOS apps had a great run, but it’s over.”)

So is this the end of computing as an industry? Afterall, if no one can make money from Apps, why develop them?

Can you see what I did there? Yes, the day of the App is coming to an end. But Apps !== computing. Computers don’t need applications (in the traditional sense of an installable silo of self contained functionality) in order to be useful. The idea of an application is a metaphor, what Scott Jenson refers to as the “default thinking” about how we use computers. Or, as Thomas Kuhn (from whom Jenson borrows the term “default thinking”) a paradigm of computing. Metaphors are certainly helpful, but ultimately constraining—we start thinking of the metaphor as reality.

But as Kuhn observed so famously in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, paradigms change. Newtonian physics gives way to Einstein’s relativistic universe.

So, while some, many, perhaps most, will continue to double down on our default thinking, that computing === apps, and continue to extract, at ever greater expense and effort, with ever diminishing returns, the attention of users, others will, as ironically Steve Jobs quoted Wayne Gretzky, “skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”.

Where will you skate?

Want to hear more?

Hear Scott Jenson, and many other super smart folks talk about where the puck is going, at Web Directions South, October 24 and 25, Sydney Australia.

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