When thinking about what the future holds for mobile, many commentators quite understandably look towards Asia. In China, mobile technology has been developing at an extraordinary pace, in step with the Internet, whereas in the West these two waves have advanced within two quite distinct timeframes – first the Internet, then mobile. It is for instance highly likely that a Chinese person connecting to the Internet for the first time will do so from a mobile device rather than a desktop or laptop computer. In recent years the market for mobile apps in China has been dominated by the ‘super app’ WeChat. Having started out as just a messaging app like WhatsApp or Viber, WeChat is today used by Chinese people as a comprehensive service platform. You can make a bank transfer, call a taxi, purchase a book through Amazon or order your evening meal without leaving the app. Last January WeChat extended its services by rolling out a set of ‘mini-programs’ within its app. These ‘instant apps’, which come already embedded – i.e. there is no need to download or install them – enable users to access many different services. WeChat is thus becoming a sort of operating system within an operating system.

Messaging app market keeps growing

Messaging app market keeps growing

According to a report from US research and advisory firm Gartner, observing what WeChat is currently doing is a good way of obtaining an overview of the Western mobile market in the near future. The report, which is based on a 2016 Survey Analysis of users in the US, China and the UK, points to an increasing use of messaging apps, while there has been a decline in the use of other types of app. “Messaging apps such as WeChat, WhatsApp and Viber are being used more and more from year to year. Some 71% of respondents say they use them on a daily basis, compared with 68% in 2015,‟ points out Jessica Ekholm, Vice-President for Research at Gartner, who was in charge of compiling the report, explaining: “Users are increasingly turning to these apps, which are becoming platforms for communication, socialising, e-commerce, and lots more besides.‟ By contrast, the use of other types of apps seems to be stagnating, even declining. And among those surveyed by Gartner, it even emerged that fewer people were using video, browsing and social network apps than the previous year.

A move towards holistic super-apps

Jessica Ekholm continues: “We see that interest in apps is stabilising, and so is frequency of usage. Many people already have the apps they need on their phones – social networks, banking, news, weather, etc – and are less inclined to go looking for new apps.” This should come as no surprise. When a new product comes out there is usually a surge of activity on both the supply and demand sides – the supplier going into over-drive in response to the customers’ enthusiasm. Once the market reaches maturity however, supply stabilises and refocuses on the most efficient channels and on user demand for efficiency and convenience. At the dawn of the automobile era, we saw vehicles of all types, sizes and forms, using a variety of propulsion methods, being developed before cars become more standardised and took on the look that we know today. 

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Similarly, we are probably not witnessing the death of apps, but rather a maturing market in which the creative frenzy we saw at the beginning has been severely dampened. Quite simply it is much easier for the user to go via a few dominant apps to access a broad range of services than to fiddle with a huge number of narrowly specialised apps. At this juncture, in Western country markets, there a number of players that seem well-placed to take advantage of the situation, Facebook being a prime example. In 2014 Facebook reoriented its mobile strategy, turning the messaging functionality into a separate app called – appropriately enough –Messenger. In the same year, the social network provider bought the startup behind instant messaging app WhatsApp, used by millions of people in Europe and South America. Each of these two apps now boasts over a billion users. Since December 2015, users have been able to order an Uber ride via Messenger and in summer 2016 Facebook also rolled out a bot enabling us to order in food through its messaging app. 

So now that messaging apps seem to be the number one choice among mobile users, is Mark Zuckerberg’s internet giant on the way to establishing itself as the preferred platform for accessing a whole range of mobile services? It is certainly true that to a certain extent the domination of WeChat in China is due to specific socio-cultural characteristics of the Chinese market, including the fact that access to the Internet has spread very fast through the use of mobile devices and also that Google Play is blocked in China. However, Jessica Ekholm argues that the parallel between WeChat and Facebook still holds true, predicting: “We’ll continue to use apps, but we’ll become less dependent on them and less interested in them with the development of new user interfaces, especially messaging apps and digital assistants, which we’ll use to carry out tasks – order in food, request information, etc. Messaging apps will become the user’s favourite means of communicating with third parties. Instead of going straight to their apps, we’ll get in direct contact with them via messaging apps.‟However, she does not believe the change will be abrupt, or a mass phenomenon. “In China, WeChat is well established, has managed to attract the market’s attention and get hold of users’ hearts – and their wallets. In the West, we’ll also move in this direction, but that could take several years. For the moment, the services included in Facebook and similar platforms just need to provide a better user experience,‟ says the Gartner Research VP.

Voice interfaces, tailored interfaces

In order to truly transform the mobile UX, Facebook, or any other company wishing to offer users a more holistic experience, needs to go beyond being just a messaging service that enables people to order an Uber or a pizza. During the EmTech Digital 2017 event in San Francisco on 27-28 March, Adam Coates, Director of the Baidu Silicon Valley AI Lab, pointed to the key role that artificial intelligence (AI) will play in mobile going forward, especially on the voice recognition front. “It’s important for us to be able to communicate with these new technologies in a more natural, intuitive way, which means using our voices,‟ Coates told the EmTech audience. The way we use mobile channels could therefore in the near future be more like a natural conversation with an intelligent super-app that enables us to access a wide range of services. We should not forget that in 2015, Facebook acquired speech recognition startup Wit.ai. Jessica Ekholm sees for example lots of opportunities in the connected home field. “Are users now looking for an approach centred on one app, a unified ecosystem? This is what we’re seeing develop in the connected homes field. 

re chatbots the next apps?

Are chatbot the next apps?

A separate app for each connected object wouldn’t be viable; we need more integration in the app world,‟ she argues. Ekholm points out that the AI-based virtual assistants which are now appearing will enable each user to enjoy a more streamlined, tailored experience. “The post-app era will be about using digital assistants such as Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant to carry out tasks. AI was a key theme at this year’s Mobile World Congress [in Barcelona in February-March] and many suppliers are looking to create a smarter user experience by using AI in their apps. In future they will then be able to analyse the profile of each user and so understand their needs in detail,‟ she underlines. The Kik bot, developed to help teenagers with their online purchases, based on their personal tastes, illustrates this trend. Ekholm cites the personal assistant app developed by Bilbao, Spain-based startup Sherpa, which is prospering in a sector largely dominated by native English-speaking suppliers.

Bots will become more widespread as they reach maturity and become easier to use,‟ predicts the Gartner Research expert, stressing: “It’s all about creating a smooth, contextualised experience, about having a virtual assistant that really knows who you are, what you’re doing, the limits you set in terms of confidentiality, and so on. For the moment no app has reached that stage, which is why I think that we still have a lot to discover.‟ Facebook is lagging somewhat behind Google, Apple and Amazon in this field, having just made its virtual assistant M accessible to the general public, following two years of testing. Only time will tell whether M enables Mark Zuckerberg’s platform to become really expert in this field.

'The post-app era will be about using digital assistants such as Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant to carry out tasks.' Jessica Ekholm - Gartner

So we are probably not witnessing a gradual demise of apps. Instead, the market is re- forming as it reaches maturity. As simplification becomes the order of the day, we might well see the market converge towards centralised intermediaries that allow users to access a huge range of services. This approach is in fact close to the WeChat model, which Facebook is hoping to replicate in the Western market. Says Jessica Ekholm: “Our survey leads us to the conclusion that in the three countries we investigated, the market for apps remains buoyant, but the number of actively used apps now remains stable year after year. So we have two recommendations to make: continue to create apps as a means of reaching a market and as a marketing tool; but remain aware that the Golden Age of apps as we know them is about to change, with the development of instant apps and the increasing use of virtual assistants and conversational interfaces using messaging apps.

Currently Facebook seems well-placed to exploit this new landscape, but in order to establish itself the social network platform will need to demonstrate that it can really innovate in terms of user experience and also build up expertise in two cutting-edge technologies – voice recognition and virtual assistants.

By Guillaume Renouard