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Business News/ Opinion / The problem with apps
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The problem with apps

There is a fundamental problem in the app world: you have to download apps to try them out

Due to a variety of reasons, such as bandwidth, data limits, limited space on the phone and a plain bad installing experience, users don’t like installing apps they aren’t sure about.Premium
Due to a variety of reasons, such as bandwidth, data limits, limited space on the phone and a plain bad installing experience, users don’t like installing apps they aren’t sure about.

Unless you are living under a rock, you have surely noticed the recent surge in app advertisements. Approximately 3,500 crore worth of traditional media advertising is bought annually by Internet companies, typically to peddle their smartphone apps.

With 300 million newspaper readers in India and only 35 million Internet shoppers, online companies may be wasting 90% of their advertising budgets, and they don’t even know which 90%. Why?

At the core of this advertising surge lies the issue of app discovery. From the late 1990s till around 2011, Google owned discovery; the user searched for what they wanted, and Google would throw up relevant results and a few advertisements. Problem solved.

Everything changed with the move from desktops to smartphones. The Internet user base in India expanded massively, from around 20 million in 2007 to around 350 million today. Thanks to the advent of mobile apps, developers could offer a dramatically simplified user experience that users loved.

There was only one problem. There is no Google for mobile apps. Sure you can search on the play store, but it doesn’t work with the same efficiency as Google.com does. Even if the search algorithm improves, there is a fundamental problem in the app world—you have to download apps to try them out. It turns out that for a variety of reasons—bandwidth, data limits, limited space on the phone and a plain bad installing experience—users don’t like installing apps they aren’t sure about.

What can an app developer do? You can try to get into the top 20 list on the app store and be seen by millions of users every day. But that is a self-reinforcing list. So the large, global apps that make it to the list tend to stay there, making it next to impossible for new apps to gain entry. You can employ a social media agency that uses Facebook to advertise your app to a relevant user base. But that turns out to be expensive, because a user searching for a 3BHK in Bandra on Google is vastly more likely to click on your ad for a housing app than a random selection of 35-40 year olds on Facebook.

You can partner with mobile operators and handset manufacturers to preferentially offer your apps to their user bases, but that dice is so loaded in favour of the financially powerful it needed the entire #SaveTheInternet campaign to prevent it from happening. As a start-up, you default to radio and print advertising.

This doesn’t mean app discovery will forever be broken. Imagine if you had a single app you could use to invoke any app that you liked—a super app, if you will. No more messy downloads and cluttered home screens. Well you already have that app on your phone; it’s called the browser. Of course, people don’t like to use the browser on their phones. It is nonetheless a powerful tool.

You can expect major strides in browser technology in the next few years. Chances are you will soon be able to invoke any app from within the browser, without the need to download it.

Another model for the future of apps can be seen in China, where you use a single app to invoke many more apps, except it’s not a browser, but a chat platform called Wechat. The Chinese use chat to order a variety of services, from booking a taxi to ordering food.

It is certainly possible that human-assisted or automated chat platforms take root in India as well and further simplify the app experience for Indian users. India has the added advantage of having a plentiful pool of potential chat agents who help the system get better by providing manual oversight. A number of smart young start-ups are betting on this chat-based app universe.

In the messy world of the Internet, it is hard to say which model will prevail, or even if one model will indeed dominate the others. Maybe with improved hardware and bandwidth, downloading apps will no longer be a problem in the first place. Maybe we will see the resurgence of the browser and the open Web. Maybe the future will be powered by thousands of human chat agents helping a machine solve your problems over chat. Maybe in a few years we will all be using wearable computers and marvel at the time touchscreen phones were even a thing.

Most likely it will be some combination of all these, plus a few new models start-up founders are dreaming up as we speak. One thing is for certain, five years from now a young Internet executive will not be sitting with their ad agency rep wondering whether hoardings work better or newspaper ads. Amen to that.

The author is a partner at Helion Venture Partners.

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Published: 02 Oct 2015, 01:04 AM IST
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