In his post on the 37signals blog, David Heinemeier Hansson makes a very good point about the small number of mobile apps most people actually use regularly. If most of us use just ten or so apps on a daily basis, do we really need hundreds of thousands of apps? His answer is a rather emphatic no, but I think he’s having trouble seeing the forest for the trees.
As an iOS developer I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the market for apps. When the App Store first launched in July of 2008 I was absolutely blown away by the hundreds of apps available on day one—as was Apple, from what I’ve heard. Then a month later when my first app launched I was dumfounded to see the total number of apps already pushing into 5-figures. And a few months after that, 6-figures. And before the platform is even 5 years old that number will surge past 7-figures!
We’re obviously in the middle of a boom, and in any boom there’s going to be excess and redundancy, but are 499,999 of the 500k apps available on the App Store excessive and/or redundant? Obviously not. Can other mobile platforms be competitive without 500k apps? Absolutely! But here’s the really interesting question to ask: what specific apps does a mobile platform need to be competitive?
I think it’s telling that David says he only uses/needs ten solid apps on a daily basis, then goes on to list nine apps Apple baked into iOS (Safari, Camera, iPod, Clock, Weather, Photos, Messages, Mail, and Maps) and two apps from the App Store (Echofon and Bloomberg). So, he’s actually at eleven apps, but then backs off saying that he’d be fine reading Bloomberg in a browser. That leaves Echofon, a Twitter client, as the one 3rd party app David just can’t live without.
Well, WebOS, Windows Phone 7, Blackberry OS, Android, and even Meego all have the core apps covered as well as some sort or Twitter client. So, what is it that’s so magical about the iOS App Store? It’s that eleventh app.
Like David and many other iOS users, my tenth app is a Twitter client, Tweetbot, but just a few weeks ago that tenth app was Twitterrific and I’m actually hoping that with improved support for lists, Twitterrific will soon be my tenth app again. I do, however, have an eleventh app—Reeder. I could probably use Google Reader in a browser if I absolutely had to, but I REALLY don’t want to. Oh, and Black Pixel recently acquired Net News Wire, so my eleventh app might even be changing in the near future.
Nine core apps, a Twitter client, and a Google Reader client, surely that’s all a mobile platform needs to be competitive? Hardly. I shouldn’t have even conceded that a Twitter client is the tenth essential app for mobile platform success, many would argue it’s a Facebook client or something else entirely. But saying that a Google Reader client is essential to mobile platform success is laughable. To me, however, that eleventh app really is essential. I’d never switch to a mobile platform that didn’t have a fast, rock-solid Google Reader client.
Like most iOS users I could rattle off another 5-10 apps I use on a weekly, if not daily, basis and even that list is constantly changing as new apps come along and developers iterate on existing apps. Are those additional 5-10 apps essential and irreplaceable? Probably not, but my mobile computing experience would undoubtedly suffer without them.
If we took a poll of all iOS users and asked for a list of the eleven absolutely essential, can’t live without apps I bet we’d end up with at least a thousand different types of apps. A doctor might include a medical imaging app, a musician would likely include a multi-track recorder or some other musical sketch pad, an artist would include an actual sketch pad app, a builder might list an estimating app, a freelancer a time-tracking and invoicing app, and so on.
And that’s just app types. If the poll asked for the names of specific apps, I bet the list would head well into 5-figures and might even break 6-figures. That “builder” I mention above is a generalization of an entire category of professional iOS users and each individual in that group has different needs and expectations. The estimation app that’s essential to a residential builder might be completely useless to a commercial builder.
We can each argue convincingly that the apps we use daily are the essential apps that make a platform, but the truth is, each app is just a tree and the magic is in the forest.
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