We can all remember when smartphones--and apps--first became popular.
When hanging out with friends, we'd entertain ourselves just by searching for and downloading apps, laughing as we launched cows into the air and morphed ourselves into wrinkled grandmas and grandpas.

But, as with all new things, the novelty soon wore off. We continued to use our favorite social media platforms, as well as practical apps for tasks like checking bus schedules, or reading our emails.

But as we did so, our engagement with many of our existing apps shrank, and those apps lay neglected like wilted flowers in a garden.

That's precisely why people think apps are dying.

This might sound counterintuitive, but as apps have become a normal part of our everyday lives, we're using fewer and fewer of them. The number of user downloads is indeed shrinking; over half of smartphone users download zero new apps per month.

Apps as we know them might very well disappear.

But they're far from dying.

In the next five years, we might not download apps as much, but we will use them in ways that are radically different from how we use them now.

Apps will do just as much and more

Downloading another app sometimes feels like buying another piece of clothing you know you won't wear much. If it's only going to sit in your closet (or, in this case, on your home screen), why get it at all?

Apps are like T-shirts; a handful can be just as effective as (and often more convenient than) twenty. It's really just a matter of how versatile an app is, and of how many different features a single app can incorporate.

Super apps--apps with broad and varied capabilities--have already caught onto this idea. WeChat, the leader of the super app movement, incorporates features like bike sharing, online shopping, and peer-to-peer payment.

As more and more companies search for creative ways to drive app engagement, I predict they'll follow WeChat's lead.

In the next few years, your home screen will have just one or two apps--and you'll use these apps for everything.

Apps won't require downloads

Super apps are one way companies will help us avoid downloads.

But there's also another way. In the future, we might use apps without having to download them at all.

Google is paving the way for this. The company's Instant Apps allow apps--even those you haven't downloaded--to run like regular, downloaded apps on your phone. Because the Instant Apps concept overcomes one of the biggest barriers to app engagement, it's likely that this (or, at least, a similar concept) will become the norm for all of us in the next few years.

Our home screens would certainly look empty, and the number of app downloads certainly wouldn't increase, but apps still wouldn't be dead.

On the contrary, we'd continue to use new apps all the time--and maybe even more--because they'll require much less effort to obtain.

Apps will be most accessible when we most need them

We typically have little motivation to sift through our phones (not to mention the app store) to find the perfect app. Even when there's another app available that better fits our needs, we tend to use our same go-to apps if they can get the job done.

But what if, instead, our phone knew which app to offer us when we needed it? We wouldn't even have to download new apps for this to work. Our phone could suggest apps that we downloaded long ago but forgot we had.

While this might seem far-fetched, I can see it becoming mainstream in the next few years. After all, we're already seeing attempts to make our smartphones even smarter. Appnext Actions suggests apps to you based on your personal context. This means that if your phone (based on GPS and other data) knows you are commuting home from work, it will offer you apps like Uber or Lyft at exactly that time.

With the emergence of in-phone app suggestions, super apps that do everything, and apps that don't require downloads, the future of apps as we know them looks uncertain. While some insist that apps are only growing, there's also a very real possibility that these new features will spell the death of the App Store, as well as wipe away the dozens of app icons that dominate our home screens.

In fact, it might look like apps are going extinct altogether.

But they won't be. Based on recent developments, I do think it's clear that the way we've traditionally use apps isn't going to persist. But in terms of the persistence of the apps themselves?

I'm optimistic that, in new and different forms, they'll continue to dominate.

Published on: Aug 20, 2017