Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Managing My Million Apps

I remember when I had less than thirty apps on my iPhone and tended to use each of them for substantial amounts of time. Now I have more than one hundred apps on my iPhone.

While there are many of those that I only ever use rarely, the core set that I use the most has increased in proportion with the total. As a result, each app is now used for smaller amounts of time on average. I now find that I can productively segue between quite a lot of apps when I have only a five-minute dash to gang together a block of tasks. This is a very different use-case to what I adopted when first using this iPhone. On one hand this is a way of working that I have developed that best suits my needs. On the other hand this behaviour must reflect the affordances of the available software, where the vector is now clearly moving towards single-use apps that do one thing really well.

Extrapolating forward from this current use-case and the macro-trends of the software infrastructure, could we be looking at a future where we will have many thousands of apps on our phones and use most of those for little more than a few minutes each week? (1) That is an interesting line of inquiry that leads me to think about the overall way that the OS serves the user and how it could be optimised for such a use-case.

For now I am going to run with the assumption that a small number of top-tier apps are going to remain which will still be able to leverage greater amounts of time: web browsers, email clients, select social media apps etc. Although I will add the proviso that we can already see some apps within that class being separated into smaller parallel single-function tools, Facebook being the most notable example with its Camera, Messenger and Pages apps.

Below those we find the middle-tier of apps which have a high frequency of engagement, say a few times every day or week, but each instance of use may only be for a brief duration.

At the lower end of the utility spectrum there are going be apps that, due to the nature of their hyper-specialised focus, will never require more than negligible attention. If there is a cohort of apps on each of our phones that may each only be useful one or two times a year, and even in specific locations, how can the OS best serve those and surface their utility at the appropriate times?

Looking forward, manually managing the amount of apps on our iPhone to keep within the limit of the numbers we usefully can retain within our minds seems sub-optimal. We should not assume there is any upward limit to the amount of apps we install on our devices.

Surely there is an opportunity for a software solution that maximises the utility of a significantly greater number of apps than we can currently envisage? The million apps in my title for this post was for alliterative purposes, but who knows — what if? Would we need a totally novel toolset to operate within that context. What form could such a tool take? And are aspects of it already in place? It is no accident that Apple calls Siri ‘your digital assistant’. Or could the whole app-based model eventually become unwieldy and unusable beyond a certain scale and need to be disrupted by a novel user-interface? This is something I plan to think about some more.

1. Given that the iPhone 5 is available as a 64GB model, having thousands of apps is already a feasibility.