Apps Need to Merge or Face Death

Apps, it's time to merge.

It was 1993, and I was editor of a monthly called BBS Magazine, covering the cultural and technological revolution sparked in the '80s by electronic bulletin board systems. If you don't know what I'm talking about you're in good company -- most people at the time might have known about big BBSs called The Well, CompuServe or Prodigy among others. But they would have little reason to know about the thousands and thousands of local electronic boards being run out of people's basements across a bank of 386 desktop PCs. In neighborhoods around the world the tinkerers and entrepreneurs were inventing the future by offering digital playgrounds (each with its own value prop) people could dial into using a modem and play games, chat with others online, download files, etc. Long-distance dialing was costly at the time so it gave rise to the need for a dense network to satisfy demand.

But there was a problem. It wasn't an evident one at first, but as the Internet got a browser -- allowing people to suddenly move effortlessly from playground to playground, high on the drug of serendipity -- BBSs started looking like islands without bridges. They we're destinations with cool content trapped by inconvenience: to move from one BBS to another you'd have to disconnect, pause, dial, wait... wait... then get to the new board. Inconvenience: 1; Serendipity: 0.

Within a couple years BBSs were virtually gone. Hardcore fans were still dialing in, yes, and there was even fresh technology allowing different boards to be daisy-chained for easy jumping about. But it as too late: The Web had flattened the walls (save for AOL).

I think of those days and can't help but get a similar pang when I navigate my iPhone or Android looking for this app or that one. It can be frustrating, and likely contributes to lack of loyalty for applications and ultimately their invisibility. I have to go find the app, open it, perform my query, etc... OK. Now I want to call up info on a related topic (or not related!), so it's back to digging around for the right app.

Clearly some apps (movie times apps, restaurant and entertainment apps) are starting to allow integration of complementary content from other apps. Flixster in fact offers its movie fans a link-off to the Yelp application (but that's probably more about a deal than going for seamless integration).

But what is not happening fast enough is a structural change to how applications on your phone are presented and navigated. If I'm in Waze and passing by a National Park I should be able move directly into the Park Service's experience, or at least content, then retreat to Waze or serendipitously drift forward to applications that offer content or experiences with some similar thread.

Going in, down, around, up, out then back in again won't cut it for long. Like the BBSs before, the island metaphor is appropriate. It's unlikely the mobile Web will quickly dominate like the desktop Web did 20 years ago. But surely we're going to have to find a way to marry up these iron-clad content containers and allow consumers to roam free.

It will probably be one of two things that spark it: Demand from consumers, or lack thereof.