“Have you tried our mobile app?” That’s bound to be a pop-up that you’re all too familiar with now, and this week a number of major brands have rolled out new apps in the name of convenience and innovation. Starbucks has brought mobile payments to India through its app and McDonald’s is testing a new ordering app in California. Fair enough ideas on paper, I suppose, but do we really want yet more apps cluttering up our home screens? Perhaps more importantly, are we being taken for fools by allowing more and more brands to secure valuable time in front of our eyes?

I say this because branded apps are virtually everywhere now, yet I question the utility that many actually bring to consumers. Before anyone says what about the Android Authority app, know that I’m not opposed to branded apps in principle. These can be great ways to keep up to date with a specific publication, hobby, or even a brand or set of products that you really care about, when done right. Instead, I’m taking issue with the increasing trend for every little thing to require an app – an app for the sake of having one.

Do we need dedicated apps for the one time that we compare car or travel insurance prices each year? It's also much quicker to 'OK Google' restaurant locations than to open the Burger King app.

Managing my automated home, checking social media, and streaming music or video are all in need of a proper app interface, as the various menus and functions that tie into the wider OS are deserving of some dedicated software. But is ordering a coffee, booking a train ticket, or comparing car insurance quotes really worthy of a dedicated app? Shopping apps, in particular, are becoming my new pet peeve.

See also:

A look at the billion-install club: the most installed apps

January 14, 2017

Building walled gardens

As an experiment, have a browse through high street sports shops or even electronics retailers on the Play Store and they’ll almost certainly have a dedicated app. Rather than providing something more purposeful, like news on new products or previews of upcoming new releases, they’re just carbon copies of their web storefront. Why any of these apps is preferable to a functional and well designed mobile website is beyond me, which is where my cynicism starts to creep in.

If I installed a company's dedicated app for every item of clothing or take-out I've ever bought I probably would have filled my phone's internal storage. What's wrong with a robust mobile webpage?

I don’t know about you, but I always shop around when buying things online. Comparing prices, returns policies, shipping times and so on before I settle on where I want to buy. Obviously, a company would rather you didn’t check out its competitors, and encouraging consumers to buy through an app instead of online makes checking out alternatives that little bit less likely.

Furthermore, you’ll almost always need an account with these apps, and that’s a great way to track your browsing and purchasing habits. It’s cheap data collection for these companies, with tailored recommendations to lure you back into their app. Then there’s the usual loyalty card, bonus points and rewards cards traps tied into these apps too. I may sound cynical, but these apps are all about capturing your long term business and building up that advertising profile, rather than offering us a superior service.

Companies spend a fortune squeezing their logos into magazine and TV ads, and yet with an app they can have their brand in our pockets 24/7 at virtually zero cost.

Then there’s the logo. A big bright Golden Arches or Nike swoosh in your app draw is a subtle reminder to give them some business in the future, even if you swipe past it 20 times a day. Companies spend a fortune squeezing their brand logos into magazine and TV ads, yet with an app they can have their brand in our pockets 24/7 at virtually zero cost.

Proprietary vs universal payments

Going back to the McDonald’s app that they’re trialing in the US or the Starbucks mobile payment rollout, this is just more of the same hidden under a more subtle disguise. There’s no reason why these orders needs to be placed through a dedicated app, in fact this is probably more of a hinderance, as company’s opt for proprietary technology over superior existing platforms. Not to mention that it wasn’t exactly time consuming to place a McDonald’s order anyway.

Firstly, these apps are at best just another layer on top of better platforms. With Android Pay, Apple Pay, or PayPal I can make quick, one tap payments in stores and online, which is wonderfully convenient.

However, if I want to place an order with the Starbucks app, first I have to register for yet another account, even if I want to use an existing mobile payment system. I haven’t a clue why that’s at all necessary. Failing that, all of these are yet more apps that I have to enter my card details into, rather than using helpful options found in web browsers, such as Chrome, that can save my checkout information for a quick purchase.

Between signing up for an account, adding payment options, and topping up your loyalty card, Starbucks has made mobile payments more difficult than they should be.

Secondly, why can’t any of this be done over local Wi-Fi instead of a dedicated app? It would surely be more convenient to connect up to a cafe Wi-Fi, be presented with a menu and make my purchase using Android Pay or a PayPal web checkout. This technology is already around, is just as easy to develop as an app, and is available to anyone as soon as they come into the store, rather than having to pre-install the app or wait for a 10-20 MB app to download.

Why can't cafe or fast food menus and payments be handled over a local Wi-Fi landing page instead of requiring a 20 MB dedicated app?

When it comes to purchasing items online or new innovations for speedy mobile orders, companies and software developers seem to have forgotten the old adage that good software should achieve its goal in as few steps or clicks as possible. I don’t want to have to remember 20 different account details for 20 different clothing and fast food apps when I already have an Android Pay account that I can activate with a simple swipe of my finger.

Reel it in

Ok, I know that no-one is forcing me to use these apps, yet, and I can still get on just fine without them as most places still have functioning mobile websites. That said, the increasing focus on apps could leave mobile websites lacking in important features in the future. Try using Facebook Messenger on a mobile browser, for example.

Maybe I’m relatively alone in finding this a problem though, as many of these branded shopping, food, and other “experience” apps are quite highly rated by users, often receiving 4+ stars. Perhaps a quick link into an app rather than fumbling through browser bookmarks is the type of convenience that consumers are after?

Where do you stand on the prevalence of these trite branded apps? Do you use any of them regularly, or are you frustrated at being asked to install something else on your limited flash memory?

Robert Triggs
Lead Technical Writer at Android Authority, covering the latest trends in consumer electronics and hardware. In his spare moments, you'll probably find him tinkering with audio electronics and programming.
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