Chances are, no matter what you do, you spend a lot of time around apps. You organize meetings and catch up with coworkers on Slack, order food on Seamless, and find rides on Uber, and we haven’t even approached the massive time sinks of your day that are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

But for companies outside of those giants are having an increasingly difficult time competing with these über-apps. As smartphone usage has gone up in recent years, consumers are becoming more set in their ways about which apps they’ll use, and more and more apps are falling by the wayside. As 2016 goes on, we may start to see that the future of apps isn’t in the App Store at all, but in multi-functional apps that live inside a common portal.

Steve Jobs famously believed that the iPhone didn’t need native apps to be successful. When he introduced the smartphone to the world in 2007, he told developers that creating web apps tailored to the iPhone would be enough for most users and more secure for Apple. Users and developers were deeply dissatisfied with the web app experience, however, and after only a few months, Jobs caved. In July 2008, the App Store was born, and since then, native apps have come to define the iPhone itself. Jobs clearly underestimated the demand people had for native apps, no matter how novel. The App store exploded from 500 native apps on launch day to over 50,000 less than a year later. And because no one was exactly sure how the iPhone would evolve, early apps ran the gamut from games to to bizarre status symbols. If you were a moderately talented developer with the right idea, it wasn’t hard to make a buck or two off the App Store in those early days, especially if you managed to offer some kind of functionality Apple didn’t at the time.

Close to ten years on, however, the App Store is starting to feel less and less like that wide open playground. Apps now seem to have two modes: behemoths that dominate their space or small apps struggling to survive. Gone are the days of small teams stringing along with modest successes, as The Verge painfully detailed last week. According to ComScore’s 2015 mobile report, most smartphone users spend 96% of their time using their top 10 apps. The top five apps alone account for 90% of all phone usage. People aren’t all using the same 10 apps, obviously, but it’s a pattern that holds strong across all users.

Most companies are never going to become one of those top five power apps for many users. And for the most part, that’s okay. Utility apps, for example, may not be the most used, but are often the most useful. My company Rukkus for instance, sells tickets to live events. We’d love it if users spent as much time on our app as they do on Facebook, and we do what we can in order to make that more likely. Our new VR based Seat 360 feature for example was conceived not necessarily to improve conversion rate, but to push toward improving the likelihood that users might spend more time within our app. But the fact remains, if you’re not a social network, a media outlet, or an addictive freemium game, you have to show your value to your users very clearly.

That means that if you want to get consumers to notice your app in 2016, you can’t expect that they’ll ever discover you on their own. Why would they? They’re perfectly happy with the apps they already have. This leads to two options: you can play the increasingly-expensive game of driving installs through Facebook and display ads and hope you grab enough users to land you on the top charts list, or you can go where the users already are: other apps.

China’s WeChat is actually doing the most to pioneer a new type of app experience. While the app is ostensibly a chatting app, it really operates more like a portal to hundreds of other services, all of which live inside the WeChat platform. Developers can create their own native “sub-apps” through the WeChat API, which can generate considerable revenue. Quartz compared the idea negatively to the early days of Yahoo and AOL, connecting users to the whole of the world wide web, but the process is far more streamlined and useful. WeChat’s success has deep roots in China’s mobile-first economy, where many users were never heavily invested in the desktop web (where many American apps began) to begin with, but we’re seeing a small shift towards this functionality in America as well. Facebook Messenger allows users to order an Uber inside its chat feature, for example, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll stop there if the experiment is a success.


For a few years now, Facebook has been trying to change how users discover apps outside of the App Store, and developers have largely gotten onboard. Now, it seems more than likely that they’ll experiment creating an entire ecosystem of sub-apps. In the end, it may not be Facebook, or WeChat, or a platform that even exists right now that will crack the idea of an app portal for American audiences, but don’t be surprised if your company’s mobile efforts live entirely inside another app by 2018.