I sort of reflexively roll my eyes when people talk about the size of an app ecosystem. Once you get past a certain very minimal level of developer interest, the size of the “ecosystem” is mostly noise. I guess if you’re super-interested in playing a very large number of very bad games, you might care if there are 100,000 apps or 1,000,000 apps, or 100,000,000 apps in your platform. But otherwise you probably won’t.
But maybe that’s changing a little, and perhaps we should explore why we might start caring about app ecosystems.
A long-held advantage of PCs over Macs (back when that was the thing) was that there were actual applications written for PCs. Why was that important? Because PCs were actually useful for a wide variety of chores.
For a long time, basically smart phones had the following basic functions:
1. Keep you in touch. Phone, text, email, for the most part. Or text-equivalent app. Hangouts or whatever next-gen equivalent you want, too.
2. Take and show pictures. Camera and gallery.
3. Browse the web. This is a little out of place, because it’s a thing you do, not a goal, but honestly at this point browsing the web edges into a goal in and of itself. There are a ton of things that one might need to do that can ONLY reasonably be done by browsing the web.
4. Entertain you for short times. Kindle, Youtube, Games.
Tablets are much like phones with less emphasis on 1 and more on 4.
So when I was originally putting together a now-trashed grumpy post that said merely that was it, I was like, “Hey, how about that company I work for?” And I added “get a taxi” to the list of things that you might want to do.
But that’s a very recent addition, and it’s not a category in and of itself, it’s an example of a new category. That new category, and it’s an exciting one. I’d call it something like:
5. Interact with the physical world through a computer interface.
The thing about summoning a taxi with your phone is that it’s inherently something that has to be co-located with you — going home to your computer in order to get a taxi to get home in doesn’t make a lot of sense — and is much more convenient to do mediated by your smartphone than any pre-smartphone solution that existed. Like, if you ever need to get a taxi ride, and you live in a place well-served by Flywheel, Uber, Lyft, or other services in this place, give it a try. I think you’ll become a believer very quickly. It’s Just Better than the traditional approach.
There are potentially other apps in this category, though I don’t think that there are a ton of really essential ones right now. An old-school example is Shazam (the “identify the music being played in your vicinity” app), which shares the immediate/local nature of the taxi apps, though in practice I find that for the most part, I don’t bother with Shazam. There are some kind of marginal ones like “I’m going to Chipotle, I want to have my order waiting for me when I arrive,” though probably 90% of the time when you use one of those, you could’ve also done it at a real computer just as conveniently.
One prognostication of the future is the “internet of things,” in which everything becomes computerized and network-connected, and you could imagine that in that future, this app category would dramatically expand. At which point you’d honestly want to have dozens or hundreds of apps on your phone, even if you weren’t a connoisseur of terrible games.
And at that point — assuming it doesn’t also coincide with the future in which everything goes platform neutral and you interact with all content through a web browser — the app ecosystem of your platform will go from being marketing to a real advantage.