The explosion of the app development industry after the colossal growth of smartphone and tablet products in the market started out as a fantastic new tech segment worth watching. It has contributed significantly the rebirth of my beloved Bay Area and Silicon Valley. However, in recent months, this once proud and innovative space has devolved into an overcrowded, hyper competitive and absurdly redundant “look at me” marketplace. This is probably most true for apps based on taking and sharing photos and videos, and I’m getting really sick of it.
What was once a proud medium full of incredible innovation is now overly saturated with drivel. Thousands of camera apps, .gif generators, video manipulators and photo sharing concepts, most of them half-baked and poorly executed gum up the App Store and Google Play.
A great many of these apps are touted as “the next great thing” by some independent developer who has recently secured a couple million in seed funding. Rarely have I found an app to really be this wonderful addition to my life that the overblown marketing strategy tries to sell to me. Millions of dollars are dumped into apps that are either incomplete or just cut and paste copies with minor tweaks.
And it’s not just from the venture capitalist-backed start-ups, major companies are guilty of this too. Do I really need Facebook Camera? Is anyone even using that app? Photoshop Touch is cool and works pretty well, but is it really necessary? Maybe I would be less critical if they were one of a few great options in the space, but they aren’t. They are among thousands of similar apps that just do the same thing.
Last year I tried to work my way through the iPhone App Store options for photo and video apps and review the ones that waded or floated to the top of this muddy cesspool, but found myself unable to make any progress. Every time I would get a new app, four more would appear, each claiming to drastically alter my life. Check out this feature! Look over here, more filters! Share with your friends over here! The catcalls never seemed to end.
After downloading a few, seeking this altered state of being that was advertised as a sort of iPhone Nirvana, I realized this perfect dream world was never going to become reality. Each app had its own somewhat unique gimmick that was supposed to appeal to me in some way, but I was seeing a trend: what started out as a way for me to fill up my toolbox with wrenches, saws, and screwdrivers, was materializing into a drawer full of hammers. It just doesn’t make sense.
At this point, the situation got even worse. App developers realized how congested the space had become, and began the desperate fight to break out of it. The strategy became to push even more gimmicks and “unique features” that were supposed to jump out at me and earn my $0.99 investment. “Add Cool Text Effects!” or “35 Different Artisanal Borders!” or my personal favorite “LENZ FLAREZ!” These are bad enough in my opinion, but then they started becoming “only allows upload once per day” and “must take photos and share in custom app network” that is not compatible with Facebook or Twitter without crashing your phone through some crippling error.
Since when did adding limitations become a marketable feature? The “upload once per day” example is for an app called Days that I read in a TechCrunch review last month. For the sake of example, let’s focus on this app for a minute.
The concept of Days hinges on two things: 1) You need to photograph nearly every moment of every day. That’s the intent, and that’s what Days encourages you to do. I’m talking like at least 50 photos a day. 2) Days will only allow one upload, through its app interface, once per day. This upload makes a collage of the day’s images and shares that collage on the Days social sharing platform. Ok sounds interesting. Maybe. It’s not.
The idea of taking upwards of 50 photos a day is my first issue. The app makers actually emphasize quantity over quality. They want to saturate their social sharing engine with tons of, at best, mediocre images. Why are we encouraging this? Do you know what the standard day will look like for 95% of the population? Train ride. Traffic. Desk. Food on desk. Computer monitor. Conference room. Traffic. Dinner. TV. Rinse. Repeat. Maybe throw in a picture of my alarm clock as I set it for the next day of waking up to exactly the same thing. Yes it’s depressing, yes it’s what most people in this country deal with, and no I don’t need to be reminded of it on a daily basis.
But I’m willing to look past this, as it is technically pushing us in a direction we aren’t currently going, and that’s the basis of innovation. I don’t think it’s good innovation, but that’s my opinion. Maybe you like it. Where I take real issue is the hype over not being able to control when it uploads your collage of boring daily activity. The review I read actually was excited about limiting uploads to once per day, going so far as to say “Mind. Blown.” It made it sound like the coolest thing ever. It’s not. We’ve been down this road before. It’s called scrap booking. When the idea of moving backwards becomes synonymous with moving forwards, we’ve reached the peak of the parabola. The bubble is close to bursting.
I suppose the point of this article, other than to express my exasperation to a deteriorating industry, is to beg for companies to just think a little harder. Maybe spend a few more minutes in an office to ponder “are we making the space better with this product, or just making a product for the sake of it?” or “It is really innovative, or just taking an old idea and slapping lipstick on it?” I think this push to release hackneyed, half-baked apps into the market is fed by investors throwing money every which way in the hopes that the app will be the next Instagram. Instagram is great. It does what its supposed to do and it was really the first to do it in a publicly accepted way. It got a huge user base. That user base is what determines the value of the product, not necessarily the product itself. Instagram recently characterized themselves as not a photography company. This, as weird as it may initially sound, makes perfect sense. None of these apps are about photography. They are about pulling enough buzz to create enough of a user base to create some sort of perceived value they can then cash in on. It’s why Pandora keeps touting their massive user base, a user base that when examined doesn’t correlate with population density (200 million users and not a single one a multiple account set to evade listening limits? I’m not buying it). No one said they had to be active users. Instagram as software is not worth a billion dollars. Instagram’s user base was the target. The idea is create a big user base, get a big payoff. This strategy fails 99% of the time, but it doesn’t stop bad apps from entering the market in the vain hope they will be the exception.
This app developer bubble, much like the tech bubble before it, will burst. I just pray it doesn’t take down too many good people in the process, although it might contribute to some rental price drops that would be much appreciated to my depleted bank account.