A pessimistic Christopher Mims wrote in 2011 that apps “will soon be dead.” 5 years later it’s become obvious he may have called it wrong:

Mobile continues to enjoy ever increasing share of internet usage: 51% of total in 2015

Mobile browsing share

Source: KPCB

And in the same year, 90% of time on mobile was spent in apps:

Mobile app share

Source: SmartInsights

This majority share doesn’t suggest death at all; rather evolution. As consumers becomes more discerning, apps that make fart sounds or show pictures of cats are forced aside to pave the way for those offering refined alternatives to processes that are clunky on mobile web browsers.

So, what were the big steps in this process?

1: Apps became integrated into other apps

Another article on Business 2 Community explores apps from a slightly different viewpoint to this one, but it makes a good point about integration being a saving grace of apps. The author notes that “Facebook is focused on building Messenger into a full-fledged e-commerce platform”, and that “they plan on integrating other apps into Messenger to make your buying experience seamless and based on the context of your conversation.”

The example he gives sees a Facebook user chatting to their friend about meeting for drinks in town. The Messenger app detects the content of the conversation and recommends they use Uber to book a cab: a minority may think this Orwellian, but the majority will take kindly to the integration which, ultimately, makes their lives easier.

The scope for integration is endless too: other transport booking apps could be just as legitimately recommended as Uber in the example above (booking flights and trains, for example); restaurant apps could link through to dieting apps to provide nutritional information, and so on.

2: Apps got location-specific functionality

Geo-fencing was introduced in iOS 5 back in 2012, and it gives app developers the opportunity to alter app functionality based on the user’s location. The official app for Camden Market in London uses this feature to remind users when they’re in the area and give location specific prompts, encouraging multiple uses after download when relevant.

Anthony Main, MD of the app development agency who created the Camden Market app, explains that “geo-fencing can be used to trigger a prompt (and even fire up the app) when the user enters a specific area” – this location specific functionality is a big factor in preventing an app from lingering in the dustbin.

And many apps do linger: retention rates are one of the biggest challenges apps face. Keeping users interested in an app is difficult, especially if it is outside their current usage habits. Contextual reminders triggered by location are less annoying and more helpful than endless push notifications, so Geo-fencing and similar features are a vital consideration of app design.

3: Apps became strong enough to underpin a business

It’s not unusual nowadays to see a small business using a tablet running a point of sale (POS) app like Shopkeep or Vend to process transactions, instead of a traditional till. Some establishments (although admittedly fewer) have switched to accepting just card payment.

This functionality is a boon to business owners, especially those of the younger tech-savvy generation, as they no longer need to expend time and expense getting, and getting used to, clunky and bespoke software.

It’s not just POS apps that are used, either: Epicuri allows restaurants to process orders and bookings, Inventory Now lets business owners keep track of their stock levels, and Xero lets them manage receipts, invoices and expenses. Having all of these tools at the tough of your fingertips goes a long way to increasing the credibility of apps.

4: Apps overtook responsive design for certain tasks

Try booking a train through a mobile web browser and it quickly becomes fiddly: you have to pinch to zoom, type in multiple different fields, and browse through large lists of results before you can fulfill your intended purpose.

Head over to a train company’s app, though, and the process quickly becomes much more refined. This is a great example of how apps should behave: they should make processes that don’t lend themselves to phone browsing that little bit easier.

In the ideal scenario responsive design and apps would both be part of a website’s solution for mobile browsers but, in practical terms, sometimes one option must be chosen over the other. An app is a quicker and more tangible outcome.

5: App design standards began to establish themselves

When apps were novel there were no set guidelines or user expectations on how they should behave, meaning that there was wild variation between them. Over the years and as people began to form expectations on which behaviors apps should conform to, this began to settle down.

Then Google created their Material Design guidelines which attempted to formalize this even more. The guidelines include aesthetic principles relating to colour, shape and text, and standardized gestures like swiping down to refresh. Google describes these as “a visual language for our users that synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science”.

Another excellent step in the progression of apps.

In short, the proliferation of apps that accompanied the “there’s an app for that” mantra has been rightly curtailed, leaving in its wake an increasingly refined and sophisticated suite of apps designed for specific desired functions, based around increasingly centralized design principles. The industry is a hotbed of innovation, so let’s hope this trajectory continues