A case for de-emphasizing apps

At I/O, Google announced Instant Apps. The idea is that you search for an item of interest on the internet, if that item is served by an app, clicking the appropriate search result loads a subset of that app and serves said item with an efficiency similar to loading a webpage.

Say you’re looking for a book on Amazon through a Google search but you don’t have the Amazon app installed. If it’s properly designed, your search result would load the Amazon app with only those components that are relevant to that book. Since it’s an app, it gets all the benefits of an app, while retaining most — if not all — of the speed of a webpage.

In the latest episode of The Talk Show, Rene Ritchie equates the idea of Instant Apps with Apple’s App Thinning. Part of App Thinning is on-demand resources: If you’re playing Level 1 of a game, only resources relevant to Level 1 are saved on your device. Level 2 is downloaded when it’s needed.

It’s easy to see how these two ideas are relatable; each draws from the strength of its platform: Instant Apps depend on Google Search and App Thinning depends — loosely — on Apple’s vertical integration. But I think Google’s idea behind Instant Apps is conceptually profound and I’m not quite sure how aware Google is of this fact. The concept being: Apps — as they stand today — at the apex of future technology.

An app serves one purpose: interactions. Serving the user information and/or letting them take actions on that information. I order an Uber, I read my iBook, I attempt cleverness on Twitter, I click pictures and post them on Instagram, I play an odd game, add to and delete from my checklist, see the status on the food I ordered — they’re all interactions. Today, you use apps for all these interactions. But would they still be used as such if there were a cleaner, succinct way to do so, one that abstracts away the app and focuses solely on the interactions? I don’t think so.

Apps are used because they are better than the alternatives. The browser has slowly been de-emphasised over the years and I think that’s where Apps are headed too. And as I see it, we’re closer than ever to realise this future.

The Apple Watch tries to sell you this idea: delegate your menial/routine tasks to the watch. Notifications, complications, and glances conceptually serve your most important data instantly1. ‘Watch apps’ does include the word ‘app’ but they intrinsically de-emphasise regular apps by being projections of a traditional iPhone app. Think of them as interactive Glances, if you will.

Watch apps — at least the ones that are designed right — already turn your iPhone apps into minute interactions. Uber lets you order your cab at the press of a button. Setting your location, selecting your ride of choice, payment, etc. all reduced to the press of a button. This requires a lot of intelligent choices to be made on your part.

Further, let’s conceive of a Siri with 3rd-party support. This opens up a world of possibilities. ‘Order an Uber’, ‘Post X to Twitter’, ‘Share my recent picture on Instagram’, ‘Add The Fellowship of the Ring to my Omnifocus shopping list’, ‘How long till my Sbarro pizza arrives?’. They’re all attainable solutions to the interactions described above — all without opening a single app or possibly even touching your phone; all — assuming idealistic Siri interpretation — de-emphasising the respective app.

Of course there will be situations where the app is indispensable: signing into accounts, unreliable communication between the app and it’s automated counterpart, or — the most powerful deterrent — a user’s habituation to using apps.

I picked my set of interactions specifically since some of them — reading iBooks and playing a game — don’t need and will never have an automated/intelligent counterpart similar to the other interactions. Reading books and playing games are inherently so well-designed and strike a chord with us at such deep levels that people actually buy separate devices, and — with books — piles and piles of printed paper2.

(If, at this point, you’re drawing parallels with Steve Jobs’s car vs. truck analogy you’re headed down the right road.)

Now, dear reader, with whatever thoughts I’ve engendered in your mind and visualising a fast-as-an-iPhone Apple Watch, accompanied by an all-powerful API-driven Siri that remotely ties in with your iPhone apps, do you think the Watch is a bad idea? How about questioning the importance of intelligence and personal assistants? I hope the answers are clear enough or — at the very least — the spark is ignited.

The best inventions of mankind — whether delivered in a bang or iterated over years — were born in service of human convenience; to foster laziness and impatience. The next wave of technology won’t be any different.

  1. If you’ve read about people’s thoughts on the Apple Watch, they tend to really like these aspects of the Watch. ↩︎
  2. Buying consoles, books, e-readers, notebooks/notepads seems custom but think about it — people are still buying separate objects for these tasks in today’s world where everything is integrated in your smartphone. I’ve written previously why printed books are still a thing but my quest into determining why people still reach for pen and paper when they want to remember something is still unsatisfactory. ↩︎

In Uncategorized by Mayur Dhaka