Just a few years ago, buying a new smartphone would mean downloading a plethora of apps. You’d scan the app store for every utility you could envisage yourself ever needing, from a more interesting weather widget to a game you might play once while waiting for a delayed flight.
This app overload perhaps came from the preceding obsession with personalization that had schoolchildren trading ringtones and made buying a new skin for your Nokia 7210 a genuinely difficult decision. Mobile phones were hardly a marvel of design in their early years, a far cry from the sleek, premium hegemony of the iPhone and the leading Samsung models. You’d personalize them, make them your own, and genuinely feel like you were improving them.
Design has come a long way, though. Aside from the all-too-necessary protective phone cases, there is very little that can be done to fundamentally change the appearance of an iPhone. Users don’t want to, either. The phones look good, the default ringtones are inoffensive and the uptick in the use of silent mode has made custom text tones essentially a thing of the past. Themes have all but disappeared, and native apps have enough functionality for many to see no need to search for a third-party equivalent.
When pasted onto this backdrop, the dip in app downloads makes a lot of sense. According to TechCrunch, users now spend 84% of their time in just five non-native apps installed from the app store. Messaging and social apps dominate, as do a handful of giant companies. Facebook, for example, accounts for a whopping 13% of time spent in apps in the US, with Google close behind on 12%. The market has never been more savage for fledgling apps, and the overwhelming majority of downloads are redundant within days. All of this leads to the conclusion that, ultimately, users want simplicity.
This move away from keen app downloading may be at odds with the notion of messenger apps as utility apps. There has been a suggestion for some time that the likes of Facebook’s Messenger could become one-stop shops for everything from ticket booking to ride-hailing. Users in the US can already send money to others through Messenger, and Facebook is clearly chasing a WeChat style functionality to both keep users in app and open up new avenues for monetization. In terms of simplicity, being able to order a ride through a message, without having to leave the app you’re talking to friends on, is about as good as it gets.
Having said that, Apple’s iMessage experiment would suggest otherwise. In 2016, Apple opened up its walled garden for developers to make apps for iMessage. From stickers to food ordering, the iMessage app store exploded in popularity following its release, growing by over 100% month-over-month. Fast forward to January and February of 2017, and TechCrunch report a miserly 9% growth, just six months in. Games and entertainment are by a distance the two most popular app types on iMessage, and the dream of a utility-enabled, one stop shop iMessage seems over.
If both user and developer enthusiasm for the add-ons has waned, it suggests that users won’t go out of their way to adorn their messaging apps with third-party additions. This doesn’t mean they won’t use them, though. They may well do, but the functionality introduced will need to be intuitive, wholly native, and fast, without the need for downloads. This is achievable with the potential for users to simply message Uber as they would a friend, for example, to hail a ride. It’ll be some time before this becomes second nature for users, though, and if the iMessage experiment shows anything it's that messaging apps have a long way to go before they can truly dominate users’ time.