“I have this brilliant new food-and-wine matching/wine-to-suit-your-palate app I’d love to show you”
If I were to line up all of the people whom I’ve heard say these words, or something very similar over the last year or so, I could probably field a football team – and still have a few reserves on the bench. And I can’t imagine how many more there are out there who haven’t crossed my path.
Some of these enthusiastic souls have already dug deeply into their own or investors’ pockets to develop their apps; for others, it’s all still pretty conceptual.
And every time they ask me what I think of their ideas, I struggle to avoid reaching for a bucket of cold water.
There are two related problems.
First, most normal people really don’t need to clutter their already app-packed devices with a bit of software they are, at best, going to use once or twice a week. (How many are so wine-obsessed that they are going to check on what they should be drinking wth every single meal?)
According to a 2016 study of the usage of 37,000 apps by analytics specialists Localytics, 62% of the apps downloaded by consumers will only be used 11 times. For a quarter of these people, that figure drops to just once.
Of course, there are a few wine apps that seem to buck that trend. Vivino, which allows users to learn about and rate a wine by scanning its label, has some 34m users who are collectively responsible for 500,000 scans per day. That’s pretty impressive, but as someone who had had the chance to take a closer look at the engine told me, Vivino is like a huge shallow lake that’s very deep in the middle. In other words, the 80:20 rule applies: less than fifth of the users are probably responsible for more than four fifths of the scans.
Tools like Vivino will always have an appeal for the 5% or 10% of wine drinkers who are engaged enough to want to post reviews and read what others think of a wine. Huge numbers of the other people who downloaded the app did so because they were briefly attracted by the novelty of the technology. But that interest soon wore off; they seldom if ever feel the need to record their views of the red or white in their glass, or scan a bottle before buying it. Restaurants are not full of customers using Vivino’s ability to compare the pricing of their wine lists.
If the creators of wine apps are both competing with each other and with public apathy right now, they are soon going to be competing with far bigger forces. Why load up Vivino when apps from Google, Facebook, Apple or Samsung will do the same job?
The Facebook Shop is still in its infancy but its future is evident in China where consumers do their shopping through WeChat, their country’s 900m+-user answer to both Facebook and Twitter.
Tencent, the Chinese giant behind WeChat, launched an ‘in-app downloading feature’ in 2017, to address the problem of too many apps cluttering up smartphones. Essentially, this feature allows users to do a wide range of things, including booking a taxi and playing games without leaving WeChat. So-called ‘mini programme’ apps are downloaded, used and discarded when they are no longer needed.
As Dong Xu, a Beijing-cased internet analyst told the South China Morning Post in January 2017, “The mini programmes feature is likely to firstly replace some apps that are not very frequently used and then move to those apps that are frequently used, but don’t have complicated features.”
Lest anyone imagine that the modus operandi of a huge Chinese social media company might not affect them in the west, it is worth reading what David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products was quoted as saying in Wired magazine in October 2015. “How people see interaction inside mobile phones… [is] app-centric, not people centric. If today no phone existed, you wouldn’t create an app-centric view of the world, you’d create a people-centric view”.
When thinking about these things, it is worth remembering that ‘app’ is, after all, only another name for what used to be known as a ‘software program’. But the arrival of the shorter, snappier name was accompanied by other changes. In what we might now call the dark ages of Bi - Before iPhone - anyone who wanted to play with a photograph, produce a newsletter or calculate using a spreadsheet had to pay hundreds of dollars for the big-brand software that would let them to do so. Today smartphone and tablet versions of all these programs are available for a fraction of the cost and tech journalists nitpick over whether some highly sophisticated apps on sale for $4.00 or $5.00 are good value.
My point? That anybody who looks at the tech world imagining that it will be in anything like the same shape tomorrow risks wasting a lot of effort and money. Vivino and Delectable are almost certainly big enough and successful enough to find homes within the big platforms. But the road ahead for all those food-and-wine matching/wine-to-suit-your-palate apps and their ilk, is going to get even rockier than it is today.