The Death of the Standalone App and What Comes Next

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The Death of the Standalone App and What Comes Next

Just a few years ago, having a mobile app seemed like a strong mobile strategy; users actively downloaded and used mobile apps. But things have quickly changed: today users are less attracted to the idea of downloading a new app. As a result, many product designers have started asking the question: is the mobile app marketing dying?

In this article, we’ll address this question and share a few ideas on the future of this market.

What the statistics tell us

According to a Statista report from January 2017, Apple App Store users have more than two million apps to choose from. Every day in Apple’s app store and the Google Play Store, users download thousands of apps. According to research from App Annie, there’s been a 60 percent growth in the number of app downloads globally and the amount of time users spent inside of apps spiked by 30 percent. These numbers don’t indicate decay, but the problem is that only a tiny fraction of apps presented in the store ever gain any traction. Most apps submitted to app stores are dead weight.

There are a few trends sending clear signals that the mobile app boom has ended:

People use their mobile phones an average of about two hours a day, and almost all of that time is spent in the user’s favorite apps. ComScore found the top 10 most-used apps, and the list is completely predictable. Image: comScore

When you take this information into account, you won’t be surprised by a Gartner finding which says that by 2019, 20 percent of brands will dump their native apps.

Common problems facing mobile apps

When we analyze the mobile app market, it’s possible to define the issues as marketing and UX-related problems.

The marketing problems of mobile apps

Even before users interact with an app, app creators need to do a lot of work upfront. They need to build it and promote it so users will know that it exists. Building a mobile app is expensive. It will cost you $100k (usually, a lot more) and a few months of intensive work of your team.

Acquiring users is even more expensive. It’s costly to convince users to install your app, and even more expensive to engage them to use it so they become active users. In 2016, a company called Selio, a marketplace app, shared its case study in which it stated that getting an active user to its website cost less than 1/10 of what it cost to get somebody to download its app and use it.

The user experience problems of mobile apps

Apps require installation. Even before users actually start using a product they need to take a few extra steps such as going to the app store, searching for the app, clicking Install, waiting for the download, and then finally opening the app. Each of these steps loses 20 percent of potential users.

Image from the “Escaping tabs with progressive (web) apps” talk by Ilya Grigorik

Users also don’t always see the value. People are becoming more resistant to putting apps on their phone, and the primary reason for this is they don’t see a value. Value is the most important reason why people download an app in the first place. When people don’t understand value, they don’t download the app. As mentioned, users tend to spend most of their time on their top apps, and this makes it clear why new apps won’t find any takers. As a result, the vast majority of apps die the moment they are born.

Another UX problem facing mobile apps is that it’s hard to make a decision. When it comes to choosing an app for download, many users feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available. For example, Google Play has thousands of apps in the category productivity, and new apps are popping up almost every week, so if you need the app that satisfies your needs, you’ll have a hard time finding the one you really need.

With so many apps presented in the app market today it’s difficult to choose which one you want to download and use.

Finally, users are overloaded by apps. Even when they find and download an app that is valuable for them, they often use it just once and then forget about it. It’s tough to get someone to not only to discover an app but to use it habitually.

What comes next for mobile apps

Apps have become more and more expensive to create and promote. After reading this you might think that the mobile app market is doomed to fail, but that’s not true. In fact, statistics and behavior analysis tell us that the market is changing. Apps are continually evolving, and in the future, we will have a completely different perspective on what an ‘app’ is.

To be ready for change it’s important to be familiar with the latest trends. Here, we look at two technologies that will have significant impacts on the mobile industry of tomorrow.

Progressive web apps

It’s quite possible that browsers, not native apps, will be the future of mobile. Taking into account the fact that today more than half of all web traffic comes from mobile, it’s quite logical to provide services to users in the environment they’re in, rather than creating a new space for them.

Web apps aren’t something new. In fact, they were here way before mobile apps; for a long time, they have been a bad alternative to native apps. Users encounter reduced performance and a lack of control over device capabilities. But the situation has changed recently, and now we have a new technology called Progressive Web that allows us to build more efficient products. With Progressive Web, web apps are getting to a point where it’s almost impossible to distinguish them from a native software app targeted specifically for Android or iOS.

Similar to any native app, the progressive web app will have its own app icon on the home screen, and when a user taps it, the app will launch. That means there's no need to type a site’s address in a browser’s URL bar. Image: addyosmani

In comparison with native apps, PWAs have a few advantages:

  • Users don’t need to install them. No need to spend extra minutes to set up an app and it doesn’t use up any storage space. This is extremely important for emerging markets with expensive and/or slow internet connections and limited device storage space. Thus, if you target the Next Billion Users, PWAs are the right way to go.
  • Better discoverability. Content in progressive web apps can easily be found by search engines.
  • Easy to roll out updates. In comparison to native apps, PWAs allow you to significantly reduce time-to-market. When you create a new version of a native app, it first has to be approved by the app store and, even after that, you have to wait the time for users to download your update from the app market (some users intentionally skip such updates). PWAs allow you simply to roll out your code and users will see a new version the next time they visit your website.
  • Allow designers to improve consistency of the design. Instead of designing three different apps (one for iOS, one for Android, and one responsive website), PWA app makers only need to build one app that works for all three. This not only reduces the number of hours required to build an app but also makes design consistent. Designers will spend more time on creating a single product guideline, instead of adjusting guidelines for each platform.
  • Easy to build a multichannel experience. Today users demand seamless experiences across all devices. It’s quite natural for users to start a session on one device and switch to another to continue it. Think of adding a product to your virtual shopping cart when you’re riding home on a train, then switching to a desktop browser when you get home to verify and finish your purchase. With a PWA you can do this with the least amount of effort.
  • Deliver the look and feel of a native mobile app. A framework called Firebase allows you to build almost identical app-like experiences on your mobile browser. Your users will also have the benefits of good performance and push notifications.
  • PWAs can work offline.
  • PWAs offer more hardware access than commonly thought. Hardware features such as geolocation and device vibration are supported by many browsers. Unfortunately, a lot of hardware features and sensors are still unavailable, but browser developers are actively working on integrating NFC, accelerometer, gyroscope, and many other device capabilities.

Many big companies are experimenting in the field of PWAs and getting impressive results. For example, when AliExpress upgraded to a PWA, this resulted in 74 percent more web conversions.

AliExpress PWA

But PWAs can be used for more than business projects. In 2016, games generated 75 percent of iOS App Store revenue, and 90 percent of Google Play’s revenue. Modern web technologies allow you to utilize WebGL (hardware accelerated graphics) to create 3D games. Game engine performance in WebGL is close to native. One good example is Polycraft, a 3D action tower defense game, which creates a unique experience right in the browser window.

Polycraft is a game that runs inside a web browser.

While PWAs won’t replace native apps entirely, the number of PWAs will increase. Many businesses are realizing that they don’t need to build yet another app that will be used just once.

The rise of chatbots

What is the most popular type of app in the world? Messengers. Many people use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and Skype to communicate with friends, family, and colleagues. In 2015 for the first time in history, users spent more time on messaging apps than on social networks. It’s possible to turn chat apps into a powerful ecosystem that helps users solve many problems. And at the center of this ecosystem will be chatbots. At its core, chatbots have conversational interfaces that allow users to interact with software through text, speech, and even emojis.

The big benefit of integrating bots into messaging apps is that people don’t need to worry about downloading the right app to complete a specific task. Instead, they simply state their intention by typing or speaking to the app. Many big corporations see chatbots as a real opportunity to become the leading interface between humans and machines. Facebook, which owns two popular messengers (WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger), is already experimenting in this field. Facebook M, a smart personal assistant that is capable of doing a lot of common tasks for its users, was first introduced in 2015 as a first attempt to combine human interaction and AI. While the service failed to become widely available and was shut down in early 2018 it had a significant impact on Facebook’s design (it taught Facebook about the range of tasks that people prefer to use a virtual assistant to complete).

M was a virtual assistant by Facebook that could automatically complete tasks for users, such as purchasing items or reserving restaurant tables. Image: Facebook

It’s clear that bot-based experiences will be slow to take off, as most people continue to prefer native apps and the web over sending text messages. At the same time, recent progress in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing will make interaction with bots more natural. Voice-based interfaces have a real chance at becoming the default interface for many users.


When someone tells you ‘the age of the app is over,’ don’t believe them. The mobile app business is not dying; it’s evolving and maturing. Designers and developers are constantly trying to find new techniques that help them engage users. Thus, if you plan on creating a brand new native app, you should stop and think for a moment. Instead of trying to create yet another app, focus your attention on new platforms and technologies such as Progressive Web and Chatbots

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