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Are We Already Running Out of Useful Smartphone Apps?

Games and novelties aside, there are simply fewer and fewer areas of daily life that remain to be "disrupted" by utopian-minded Silicon Valley geeks. The golden age of the app may be coming to an end.

by Peter Lawrence Kane
Oct 1 2014, 5:00am

Photo via Flickr user William Hook

The image of a San Francisco cabbie's dashboard loaded up with five phones is proof enough that our course towards a sleek, streamlined future courtesy of technology is hardly proceeding frictionlessly. If anything, it looked hyper-real, like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

"Signs we have reached peak-app?" asked Thomas Purves, who tweeted the pic. Borrowing from "peak oil," it's a valid question that manages to screw up the underlying metaphor. Reaching "peak app" in the sense of I'm overwhelmed by all these freaking apps is certainly understandable. But considering that apps line up in smooth grids on our phones instead of cluttering our cars, the phrase may be more accurate in a different sense. It's looking increasingly likely that the wild, anarchic app-production phase of the tech boom—in which access to easy capital encouraged developers to throw shit at the wall to see what stuck—is wrapping up. Games and novelties aside, there are simply fewer and fewer areas of daily life that remain to be "disrupted" by utopian-minded Silicon Valley geeks. 

You can hate Instagram's narcissism, Venmo's lack of privacy, Uber's ruthlessness, and pretty much every single thing about Yelpers, but those apps fill legitimate needs. Even Secret, which looks like the very embodiment of frivolity, is fundamental in that people are always going to have things to get off their chest and humans love anonymous gossip. But many newer apps seem to be falling all over themselves in a contest to deliver tiny, incremental improvements (see Winelandia or Silvercar), or else breach some mathematical limit of pointlessness (look at Yo or Shots, Justin Bieber's selfie-sharing app). 

Just as one can interpret doom from even the rosiest economic data, it's possible to divine almost anything from the mishmash of trends in tech. But it's tough not to see signs that the boom in apps is entering a decadent phase. As George Packer wrote in the New Yorker last year, "The hottest tech start-ups are solving the problems of being 20 years old with cash on hand, because that's who thinks them up." Indeed, you can argue that Snapchat is as silly as they come, but at least it's not rooted in the same type of infantile wish-fulfillment fantasy that leads to dudes dreaming up a delivery service that rips you off when you're too lazy or stoned to buy a six pack.

The needs of one's inner man-child have been further met by Alfred, a $99-per-month "butler service" that serves as an umbrella for Homejoy, Instacart, and others. All Alfred does is combine, or "streamline," other apps into one. If that feels underwhelming, it was nonetheless enough to convince the judging panel at TechCrunch's Disrupt conference to award its developers the Disrupt Cup this year. If the idea of Silicon Valley insiders throwing laurels at an expensive middleman that merely piggybacks on other people's ideas doesn't sound bankrupt to you, consider that one of the conference organizers is an investor in Alfred. (The crowd was assured he recused himself from judging.)

More meta than any other app, Checky helps you break your cell phone addiction by telling you how many times you unlock your device. The frivolity isn't limited to apps, either. As an example of a novelty-obsessed culture whose self-understanding is that they're saving the world, witness Vessyl, the $200 cup that tells you what beverage you've just poured into it. Why does this exist? So you can extend your actuarial lifespan via more prudent choices when quenching your thirst, of course!

Benchmark Capital's Bill Gurley, who invested early in Snapchat, told the Wall Street Journal last month that he expects some "high-profile" failures in the medium-term as "more humans in Silicon Valley are working for money-losing companies than have been in 15 years." (Though remember, it's not as though habitually losing money guarantees a company's demise; Amazon has almost never turned a profit, even as its annual revenue approaches $100 billion.) But whether or not the methods by which venture capital is allocated have become corrupted or inefficient, Gurley's model doesn't fully take into account whether or not the apps currently available in our consumer wonderland are sufficient to the task of helping us live in the 21st century, or how many more we might want.

The exiting network of apps delivers services that were unimaginable to the internet of 2005. Even when factoring in humanity's insatiable lust for new things, there is a certain stability to tech. Facebook users may or may not be jumping ship in droves for Ello, but it's not because Facebook's current level of functionality is somehow lacking. Is it possible that no company or service will supplant Facebook as Facebook supplanted MySpace because there's little room for improvement? Is Facebook "enough"?

San Francisco software developer Daniel Pennypacker believes that that there are still a lot of middlemen that can be cut out of the equation.

"Like HR," he said. "HR could be replaced by a web app. It sounds mean, but submitting vacation requests can be automated. For every frivolous app that gets a lot of attention, there's an app that falls into some other business trend that you never hear about, and which could make more money. A lot of stuff that's hot right now is enterprise or 'agile' project management software, and even that might have a lot of frivolous aspects. There's always some business trend that software is trying to catch up with."

Has the golden age of app development ended? "I think we hit that point, years ago, and now we're just into the spectacle," Pennypacker said. "Secret is the perfect example. Are we going to run out of ideas like Secret? Maybe not, because there's always going to be some twist on the modern condition."

Like any other, the tech ecosystem, with venture capitalists as the apex predators, is concerned with in its own perpetuation—and sensibly so. New products will continue to get churned out, money will continue to fall into the hands of the lucky or the talented. But even if the bubble manages not to pop, the industry will still continue maturing into a field of mega-corporations, something we're already seeing with Facebook buying Instagram and WhatsApp.

It's not that everything that can be done has been done. But the dizzying growth in apps—to help you order organic groceries, get around town, and talk shit about your friends—is going to decelerate. The heavy lifting might be over.   

Follow Peter Lawrence Kane on Twitter.