Should Everything Be An App?

Over the past couple of years, there is a category of apps starting to appear that are “catalogue apps”. These apps are electronic catalogues for goods (or service), and some of them allow you to not only research but buy from the retailer. The question of “should they be an app” not only applies to catalogues of products, but to things like music, TV shows and movies.

There are many “catalogue apps” out there, from a large variety of retailers. There are a growing number of “app per TV show” apps appearing. It appears that the “app per book” phenomenon is on the wane (thankfully). But do these make sense? I’m not convinced they do. While I am a big believer of using native code for some kinds of functionality (games, productivity apps, technical apps), these are for things that a user is likely to use repeatedly, consistently and for longer periods of time. In most cases, performance is as important is features and functionality. But for some kinds of content, I think there are better ways.

Expensive vs. Cheap Real Estate

For media like books, TV shows, movies and music, I would rather have a few “media organizer” apps, much like I do today with the Kindle, Music and Video apps on iOS. If I were to transition to an “app per TV show”, I would easily add another 100 or so apps (to the 100 or so I already have). A app per book? That would add several hundred apps to my tablet. This makes finding content hard and unwieldy. It makes it difficult to manage the content, since I don’t have my entire library on my mobile device (I have 3 terabytes of video in some form, I have hundreds of books, some which only see intermittent use). I want to to be able to put a subset of my various libraries on a tablet or phone, and rapidly alter that subset as I desire. Doing it with apps is incredibly cumbersome.

As for catalogues, why do I want an app on my phone or tablet just for one particular retailer? I’m not shopping at Sears or Mountain Equipment Co-op every day, or even every week. On my iPhone and iPad, the launchpad is expensive real estate. I don’t have screens and screens of apps, and I have been culling my installed apps more and more over time. The decision to add an app to that inventory is something that I am putting more thought into than I have in the past. Adding a catalogue app? Not going to happen now. The value of the app doesn’t outweigh the cost of putting it on the launchpad.

Sure, having a native app allows for sophisticated and engaging experiences for the user. But as mobile browsers have evolved and improved, it is possible to build an engaging and interesting experience through a mobile-enabled web page, and given that performance isn’t generally an issue, is still an acceptable way to get information and interact with the retailer. It also makes it easier for me to comparison shop, because of tabs in the browser. That activity is more cumbersome when everything is an app.

Adding a bookmark to my browser is cheap. I have hundreds (possibly thousands) of them. They are searchable. They aren’t “in my face” and the real estate isn’t nearly as expensive. Adding an app is orders of magnitude more expensive for me. I add bookmarks at will. I’m getting pickier about the apps I install. The same applies to media: because I use media organizer apps, adding new content isn’t a burdensome thing. It is searchable and sortable. It is easy to manage the device content (particularly with iTunes 11 on the desktop), allowing me to rapidly put together a subset of the media library for music and video on the go. You want me to add an app? Now I have to decide if I truly want that show or movie. It isn’t just the dollar cost anymore. It’s the ‘cost’ of taking up valuable space on the launch pad.

“But you can search apps on iOS”

Okay, yes, you can search apps on iOS. I shouldn’t have to search for an app. These are tools. I don’t ask some sort of 3rd-party to help me find tools in my garage. I don’t use search to find applications on my desktop. If I have to use a search function to find an app, then I’ve organized my device badly, and it’s time to reorganize and clean house.

An “app per TV show” or “app per catalogue” is akin to giving every tool in your garage it’s own little toolbox. The Music, Video or Kindle apps are like the one toolbox that holds a bunch of tools. An app per catalog/show/book is a toolbox per tool. Who wants to have a dozen different toolboxes to hold a dozen wrenches? No sane person that I know of.

I’m going to say it again: real estate on my iOS launchpad is expensive. Browser bookmarks and entries in a media library are cheap. If you want me to buy media, or shop your catalogue, then you have to make it simple and easy. If you want me to install an app, you’ve no longer made it simple and easy, and you are now more likely to fail than succeed. I will add bookmarks to my browser, and media to my library, almost at will. But adding an app means I will think harder about the “cost”, which isn’t just the price. Apps are expensive, even if they are free. Bookmarks and media library entries are cheap.

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