If someone said the word "mobile" to you, you'd probably think technology absent any other qualifier. Maybe a smartphone or tablet, and almost definitely apps. The small (and often not so small) software bundles that people download for specific tasks have become digitally ubiquitous.
Even as apps have often replaced using the web on a mobile device, don't make the mistake of thinking that's the be-all-and-end-all of personal computing. There are big changes in the works, according to many experts in mobile software design and development I've spoken with, and things are likely to start working differently than what you've come to expect.
It's not that all apps are going to disappear. Far from it. But industries depending on mobile for marketing, service deliver, and other business considerations are in a bind. There are simply too many apps in existence.
Major attention competition
One estimate pegged the number of apps in the iTunes App Store last June at 1.5 million, with 1.6 million Android apps in the Google Play store in July 2015.
There are so many that getting attention is beyond challenging. Some apps go flying out the door. Most don't. Whether you want to make money directly from app sales and revenue or the app is in a bigger business context, chances are good that you won't get that much attention. The necessary marketing effort to rise over the noise of an app store is tremendous.
Breaking through on the phone or tablet
Even when an app gets downloaded, it competes with every other app on the phone. If there's not an urgent reason -- whether practical need or a desire for fun, like playing a particular game -- the software doesn't hit the device home page, it will be used infrequently at best and might get removed.
In other words, apps used to be king when there were far fewer and people readily looked at new ones. Now they're nothing special and readily available. In addition, consumers continue to move toward wanting everything done for them. You mean you have to remember to start the app and then wait for it to get going and then enter stuff? Isn't there an app for all that as well?
All these factors taken together explain why companies and developers need to find new ways to reach consumers. That is going to mean getting away from apps and developing new approaches to software and hardware to become the center of attention again.
One approach that a user interface expert mentioned to me was a company that made a calendaring app, since acquired by Microsoft. The app essentially integrated into the other software on the device. When the context was right, the ability to schedule an appointment was automatically made available.
Companies like Amazon are completely upsetting the assumption that someone will necessarily keep a phone or tablet around. The Amazon Dash button, which lets you press a standalone button to trigger a pre-determined order, like laundry detergent, or the Amazon Echo, which is basically a smart speaker that can do a certain amount of things based on voice commands, are early examples.
The Internet of Things concept is moving into place. Computing will become embedded in almost everything. Such a future turns idea of an app upside down. Instead of mobile, we have omnipresent computing. Maybe instead of being carried around on a device, some capability rendered through software gets stuck in many separate and distinct places.
The changes will be more far reaching than anything we've seen in the less than a decade since the introduction of the original iPhone. Consumers and companies will both have to rethink how they use software.