Are All Web App Platforms Doomed by Fatigue?

By Josh Catone
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The life cycle of a new hot web application platform looks something like this: 1. the platform launches amid a lot of hype, 2. advertisers and speculators swoop in, 3. the platform is flooded with applications, most of which are silly or useless, 4. as a result the good applications get obscured, and people lose interest because discovery becomes such a big problem.

The flood of applications that inevitably follows the launch of a hot new web app platform leads to what we’ve termed app fatigue. Once the number of apps hits a saturation point, people start feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of applications they’re presented with in the given app store or application gallery. That in turn leads to increased selectivity and the potential for people to dismiss the entire platform as just a collection of trivial time wasters.

This is what happened to Facebook. When the platform launched, there was a huge amount of buzz around the potential for advertisers and app developers. Subsequently, a huge number of applications were created on the platform and users were faced with a rising tide of apps that demanded their attention. End result: app fatigue. We started seeing app fatigue set in less than a year after the platform’s launch when there were just over 15,000 total applications — there are now over 53,000 apps on the Facebook platform, according to Adomonics.

Facebook has done some things to try to address the app fatigue and discovery issues — via design tweaks and rules on how apps can spread, but nothing has so far worked very well. Eventually, people who were once heavily invested in the success of the Facebook platform actually declared it dead.

The same thing looks like it might be happening with the much vaunted iPhone platform.

In November we reported that the iPhone platform had crossed the 10,000 app mark, but we wondered how many are really worth your time.

“The comparison with the Facebook platform is unavoidable,” we wrote in November. “Though there are clearly many differences (iPhone developers can charge for apps, for example, and iPhone users, since they paid for the phone and monthly service, are likely more willing on the whole to pay for apps), there are also similarities, so the comparison is warranted. As more and more developers flock to these platforms to try to make a quick buck, the noise level inevitably rises. We’re seeing it on Facebook, where the number of apps continues to grow steadily, but user engagement has leveled off.” (Note: there are about 5,000 new apps on the Facebook platform since November 30 when we ran that post, according to Adomonics numbers.)

The number one paid app right now in the iTunes App Store is iFart Mobile (iTunes), an application that simulates farting noises. Clearly, there must be some market for this $0.99 app, but it is also the type of silly/useless application that pushes down the good stuff while raising the noise level and might ultimately lead the iPhone application platform down the same path that Facebook’s has taken.

A recent survey from Compete found that 45% of iPhone owners had added 11 or more apps from the App Store. Compete concluded then (November), that “part of the application appeal may be how easy it is to find and add them to the iPhone.” By controlling distribution of applications, Apple has made it simpler for users to find and install apps on their phone platform. It’s a model that others are starting to emulate — there are now app stores available or coming from Microsoft, Blackberry, Google/Android, Nokia, Yahoo!, O2, and Palm.

The flood of applications is already becoming a problem, though. “With such a wide variety of platforms, stores, and applications, discovery is actually becoming the big problem these days,” writes Mobile Advertising News.

The big issue for these platforms isn’t so much how many apps are worth your time — with tens of thousands of applications there are undoubtedly a large number of good ones — but rather, how to weed out worthwhile apps from the fluff. With such a high level of noise, the signal is being lost and fatigue is setting in, causing users to lose interest.

We’re not sure what the solution is, but clearly app fatigue is already visible on the horizon for iPhone users, and it’s already plaguing Facebook users. We predicted in October that fluff apps would start to fade away on the Facebook platform as developers determined that the opportunity to make a quick buck had passed, and eventually useful applications would rise up in their place to form a smaller, but more valuable application ecosystem. It was a nice theory, but so far nothing has happened to make us think that will actually come to pass.

Perhaps, though, that’s just the necessary evolution of any new web app platform — launch, hype, land grab, overload, fatigue, fall off … then, rebirth? We’ll see.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments. How many apps have you installed on social networks or on your smartphone? With the sheer number of apps available are your starting to feel overloaded? Are you starting to notice discovery becoming a problem as noise levels rise?

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  • Erik Giberti

    All we need now is a catchy name… how about Platform 2.0?

  • Roman

    The way I see it, word-of-mouth will become the prominent and probably most effective way of picking out good apps, both on Facebook and the iPhone.

  • kumarei

    I’m not sure about anyone else, but I’ve already hit the fatigue point for the iPhone. I took the time to weed through the applications early on, but who has the time anymore? Even searching the iTunes store for the exact app name will often bring up a slew of clones and random noise, how can you hope to find something that you aren’t already familiar with?

  • Jared

    The only ways I find new apps are through friends and blogs like TUAW.

  • Adelle

    This isn’t a new problem. Think about the last 5 apps you installed on your PC and where you heard about them. Windows doesn’t have “an app store”, it has a bajillion app stores in the form of web sites that offer software. Back in the 90’s I used to check sites like TuCows or with some frequency, but all of those sites reached saturation point a long time ago. The problem isn’t limited to proprietary software either – try looking for software on SourceForge in a category where you don’t already know the best projects. The last 5 apps that I installed on my PC, I either heard about from blogs or I selected them from the many choices in Synaptic based on whether the Ubuntu logo was next to the listing.

  • How about the Internet platform? Should we declare it dead because of the flood of web sites? Some of them, you know, not the best application of the available technologies ;)

  • Fiachra

    That’s an interesting point about app fatigue on various platforms. But we cope in the much more crowded freeware / free-to-download / shareware market for personal computers, with combination of:

    – Word of mouth
    – Wisdom of the crowd
    – Trusted recommendations

    It may just take a while for those to be established for the new app platforms.

  • Donny

    Upvote Fiachra!
    I mean, this is the same “problem” that the “PC platform” has been facing for ages, and nobody talks about “app fatigue” …

  • It makes me wonder where we are headed if apps like iFart hit the number one spot in the iTunes App Store =) Seems like the sillier the app the more popular it gets =)
    Maybe the platforms should control what apps are being released and only release the apps that they believe fit the profile of their platform?

    Maybe we just need better ways to find the apps we are looking for?

  • arctic_ark

    Word of mouth is very useful towards this issue.

    Although creating landing pages for products sold in the app store also works against this issue, its like word of mouth, but in this context I like to call it “Word of Search”.

  • Anonymous

    Facebook is the most popular site on the web. It replaced Hotmail, Gmail, Flickr and Twitter. It’s time for a reality check boy ;)

  • As always, I see this fatigue not as a problem but as an opportunity. To extend ssttoo’s parallel above, what we need is a Google for application platforms.

  • Rob

    It’s not as if it’s a new idea to present options in terms of how popular they are. Think about the way handles all the extensions for Firefox – it’s never (or rarely) a problem finding the most popular/useful extensions just by hitting that home page.

    In fact just about anything I can think of *besides* Facebook and iPhone do just fine about filtering the noise from the useful options. Amazon, iTunes, eBay… any time there are more than a dozen things to choose from you need a way to feature the most attractive items.

    So I don’t see this as an ongoing or unavoidable problem at all, just because a couple of offenders did it wrong.

  • Snarky McSnark

    fatigue? sounds like they need REST.

  • Good old fashioned Marketing is the only way to get your app/service/product to succeed. Always has been, and always will be. These are nothing more than the same old problems in new places. They simply hit harder and faster due to the nature of the platforms.

    For App store success, look at Things. While I don’t have any conclusive evidence to back it up, I’d bet their success has more to do with the exposure they’ve received outside of the app store than what they’ve received within it.

    Also, look at Apple themselves. They don’t sell well simply because they’re on display in Best Buy, or even in their own Apple stores. They sell well because they make great products and market them extraordinarily well.

    Having a great product is a distant second to having great marketing.

  • AnonymousPedant

    iPhone != web

  • Sachin Rekhi

    What a timely post since I just wrote this morning about the top underhyped platforms:

    Maybe these are doomed to go the way of the overhyped platforms in 2009 as well! I suppose time will tell.

  • The thing

    It’s Sturgeon’s Law; “90% of everything is crap.” The thing is, before the Internet publishers, record labels etc. exerted _some_ quality control…

  • Marco

    I think we’re giving “apple’s intentions with the platform” too much credit. The iFart app is #1 not because everyone’s juvenile, but it’s because everyone likes to be juvenile occasionally, and a silly app for your phone is a perfect platform. These days people view their phone not only as key communication and productivity aid, but as an occasional distraction from the flood of other things trying to get their attention. It’s your little toolbox of toys to play with for a few minutes on your lunch break. Maybe you wanna use it to make fart noises and laugh a bit. That doesn’t mean the world is doomed.

    I agree that discovering new apps is the problem. But instead of defining them as “worthwhile apps” let’s define them as “the apps you want”. For whatever reason that may be. I think the app store has done a pretty commendable job with pushing up popular apps so they appear on the front page. If your app can’t make it there then you need a new strategy for getting downloads. That’s how the market works right?

  • michael sean

    I’m okay with the state of the iPhone platform. I hear about the good apps through Touch Arcade and MacRumors. Facebook is another story. I’ve only ever used one or two Facebook apps. All that invite spam just left a bad taste in my mouth.ssttoo hit the nail on the head. These app ecosystems are behaving just like the Internet itself. We’ll discover new apps the same way we discover new websites. Through the news, blogs, and word of mouth. The noise is nothing to be afraid of. The downside is that the noise is here to stay.

  • josh

    both facebook and iphone have had a really interesting phenomenon of hypergrowth in their platforms that leveled and became, well, just a normal platform that grows at a more reasoned pace.

    I think the reason for this is simple – when Facebook Platform launched, there were already 50,000,000 users of Facebook who now had apps for the first time. Every one of them rushed in to experiment. Same thing happened with all that pent up demands for apps with iPhone.

    once that initial rush of users who actively used the product but didn’t have apps wears off, then it becomes a steady state. users use the products. Users find new apps from marketing, word-of-mouth, social spread, etc. users use apps. It’s not necessarily hyper-growth, but I don’t think anyone should doubt these platforms are here to stay.