This is something I wanted to write about since quite some time. When you look at the App Store today, there are so many apps available… It’s very difficult to find the one that solves your problem and solves it well. There is something for everything! But since quite some time I get the feeling that the number of actual new things is getting lower. Somehow you saw and used everything. Another text editor? A new weather app? Some crazy new service that’s just like Facebook but for dogs? Been there, done that. Excitement doesn’t come from new things anymore. Excitement comes from different things now.

Thinking about this, the term „Peak App“ came to my mind – I’m not sure if I heard this somewhere else… if so: I’m sorry and owe you a beer.

How we got there

It’s 2015. Apps basically exist since Apple introduced iPhone OS 2.0 back in 2008. Sure… There were applications for mobile devices before, but there is no doubt that mobile apps as we know them today got a real push by the iPhone. The usability and design was exceptional most of the time. And even if it wasn’t it did not really matter. For most people apps that turned your phone into a fart-soundboard or a flashlight seemed to be the most impressive stuff that mankind had ever created. It was just amazing what your phone suddenly was able to do. There was a gold rush and lots of money to be made. It was lying on the streets! You just had to grab it! Everyone could make an app! Everyone! Imagine anything you like… There’s an app for that.

These were the early years. Then there came a time where every app had to look like a real world object. I remember skeuomorphism being the buzzword back in 2011 / 2012. It was hard for developers to create an app on their own. They needed graphic designers to create a complex visual design. The users expected more than ever from a cool app. It didn’t only have to be functional. Now it also had to look great too! Most apps looked great already, but there was always a chance for a simple app without much of a graphical design to be successful. Those times were over. If your app didn’t look cool, had some leather, brushed metal or wood built in everywhere, you were out of the game. That’s what users wanted from their apps. They wanted their apps to look just like a real object they hold in their hands. The phone was not a phone anymore. It was that bookshelf you are familiar with. It was the warm and smooth leather of your paper notebook. You were able to feel it! Who wanted to press a regular computer button like an animal if you could just turn that shiny aluminium knob on that 80s hi-fi system in your palm?

Compared to today, it looked ridiculous. Even though many people wish those times would come back, it feels like a decade away already. With the introduction of iOS 7 and the huge change to flat designs literally every app looked old from one day to the other. A new goldrush began. Old apps were replaced by new ones. It was a chance for every developer. It didn’t matter if you had an app already and released it with a new and fresh design or if you were a new developer who went out to create something better than was already existing. The money was back on the streets. Go grab it! And people grabbed it. The App Store increases revenue for developers constantly every year. Last year it generated more than $10 billion for developers. It offers about 1.5 million apps which were downloaded over 100 billion times. That makes 850 apps each second. An average iPhone user has 119 apps installed on his/her device. Remember that these numbers were achieved in only 7 years!1

More and more developers jumped on the bandwagon during the last few years. But more developers means more competition. It gets harder and harder to actually make a living by just creating apps. The sheer numbers are huge. But cut down to the individuals, the golden age of the App Store is long gone. There is a huge gap between the amount of time needed to create an app and the money you make from it. The huge amount of revenue in the App Store is not equally distributed of course. A small amount of developers gets a huge piece of the cake. Countless developers still have the dream to make this one hit that gets you thousands of downloads and truckloads of money on launch day. They work tirelessly in their spare time during nights and weekends. They put in everything they can. And still… you have to be very lucky to nail it. People say the key point to success is building a great app. That is no longer true. You have to get everything right! You need a great app, great timing, great marketing, great connections. If one little piece during the process is not perfect, chances are high your app won’t make it. Don’t get me wrong. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is business! The gold rush is over! Now comes the time of developers and small development shops to do their business. The easy fun part is over! But still… everyone can build an app! But not everyone will be successful. That fart app from a few years ago? Nobody is interested in it anymore.

The app market has changed. There are lots and lots of apps about anything you can imagine. And there’s not only one single app that does that thing you need. There are dozens of it. You can choose from a variety of different apps for each use case. Some are great, some are not. Some are just ok, some are scam. You choose what you want and what you need.

What the developer thinks

From a developers perspective this is very hard. What should you work on? There seems to be nothing left to be done. All problems are solved already! I’m sure it’s not like that, but it is very difficult to find things to work on where there’s not already a bunch of existing competitors. Finding a niche where nothing exists is almost impossible. And if you should actually find one, you need to ask yourself whether there is a reason nobody created something for that. Maybe there’s simply no demand.

Ok… so nothing „completely“ new. How about creating an app that competes with existing ones? You should be pretty sure that you are creating someting that really stands out then. Why should the users of existing apps switch to yours? What’s your selling point? How do you market your app? Where do users find out about it? What’s your pricing model? What? Your app costs actual money? Are you crazy? Everything is free today! You can’t make people pay for your app! It’s just an app! There are 100 other apps like yours that are free to download! Sure, they might be crappy. But who cares… it’s free! People have not the tiniest bit of a clue about how much it costs to create an app and it’s your job to make them pay your bills.

These are only a few questions a developer faces today when he/she is trying to create something. It is not completely impossible to create a living by only developing apps, but it is incredibly hard to do so.

What the user thinks

I’ve always used apps. I tried out many of them. And yes, I actually buy them. Sometimes I buy them just to check out why everyone says it’s so great or to find out how they did certain things. I’m sure I have at least 2 different apps for everything I do on my phone. Currently I have 132 apps installed and I’m pretty sure I don’t really need at least 90% of them. There are apps I use all-day everyday and there are apps I forget about. Then there are apps which I forgot about a long time ago and just found out how useful they are, asking myself how stupid I was to dump them in the beginning.

And still… It’s been a long time since something really new found it’s place on my phone. There’s the Workflow app, which just won an Apple Design Award at WWDC 2015 and for which I unfortunately can’t find a real usecase for me, even though everyone is amazed by it. There’s RSS readers, note apps, todo apps, news apps, project management apps, banking apps, photo apps, mail apps, music apps…

All these apps I got quite some time ago. I still get amazed by some of them. Mostly because they are just so beautiful, great and easy to use. There are apps which I wished I could use more often just because they are so great! I actually feel guilty because I don’t use them!

The number of apps is steadily increasing. But what’s the big value of all of them? Do they really add anything to my life? I feel like I’m equipped with everything I could possibly imagine to need. It’s getting less and less of groundbreaking apps, „game changers“ if you live in the business world. The number of such apps is decreasing. I think we reached or are approaching the point where there just can’t be that many new ideas created. Without „that next big thing“, we reached Peak App.

Why Peak App?

I relate „Peak App“ to „Peak Oil“, „the point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline“.2 I get the feeling that we reached a similar point in the App Store. The number of apps and money made in the Store are growing. But the number of substantial new tools is declining. I think this is a natural process. 7 years in, and probably 99% of usual, common problems are solved by any app. There was a gold rush where everyone could get rich. There was a time where there still was a chance for lots of developers to make a good living. And now there comes the time where it is extremely hard to build a sustainable business based on the App Store.

Note, that this might be a whole other point when talking about business applications. Business apps are a completely different game. There is actually an incredibly huge amount of money to be made with such tools. Although, my experience tells me that at least larger businesses are betting more and more on portable web applications. Business users don’t need great user experience, all they care about is to get something cheap on any mobile device. At least that’s what they think they need. Cheap is not always good. „Write once run everywhere“ is only cheap on paper, still does not work really well and provides a non existent user experience most of the time. These times will change as well… but that’s a completely different story, just keep in mind that I’m only talking about consumer apps here.

I’m really not good at predicting things. There are much smarter people out there to do that. But I assume I’m basically right and there won’t be that many substantial new (consumer) apps created compared to the last few years. There will always be great new tools and ideas. There will always be some shiny new thing… but the sheer number of them will not be as high as it was. Again: remember that all these crazy numbers were accomplished within only 7 years! The speed with which this industry is growing and living is crazy. As a developer it is difficult to keep up with everything around you. As a business it is difficult to act and react as fast as the industry is changing. Whether this is sustainable or not remains to be seen. Who knows what the next 10 years will bring? Our lives have changed so much within the last 7 years… at least for me it’s way out of my imagination what the technology future will look like.

I think we reached Peak App. And somehow I think this is a good thing. The app industry engine run hot and it’s time to cool down a bit, relax and look at how everything changed in such a short time. Looking back and imagining the future might bring up the next big thing. There will be a new goldrush… we should be relaxed to get rich when it comes!

  1. If you are interested in a deep discussion about the history of the App Store, I highly recommend the „Inquisitive - Behind the App“ podcast series! [return]
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