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Mobile apps and mobile app search: the past, present, and future

Dec 6th 2022 ux

Mobile apps and mobile app search: the past, present, and future
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Social networking, food delivery, payments, games, music, exercise, airlines…there seems to be an app for just about everything, whether you’re using Apple IOS or an Android phone. 

Yes, “There’s an app for that,” as Apple first noted in 2009 (and subsequently trademarked), before most IOS apps existed, whatever the that may be. And now, with 1.9 million of them in the Apple App Store plus more than 2.8 million in the Google Play Store, it’s still an app-licable (appurate?) statement.

 Every day, you probably use a number of apps on your iPhone (or iPad or iPod Touch) or Android apps to do things like post photos your friends can compliment you on, find out how people rate everything from restaurants to dentists, check the weather, and get directions. If you’re like some people, you may even be addicted to using your apps, like if you’re a gamer or keep getting sucked in to neighborhood controversies on the Nextdoor app. 

How did all these mobile apps get soo popular, that is, start to consume most of your day? After all, a whopping 89% of the time people spend on their smartphones is logged while they’re in apps as opposed to just hanging out in a web browser.

Mobile devices and software created for them by user interface design teams have been around in evolving forms for almost 50 years. Here are some key moments in their evolutionary journey.

The past: mobile technology highlights

As you can imagine, in the early 1970s, newly invented mobile apps were rudimentary, and also limited by the rudimentary levels of hardware and software technology that existed.

1973: The hand-held cell mobile phone (pretty exciting!) was invented by Martin Cooper; the industry would then take about 10 years to bring a phone to market.

1983

  • The first commercially available digital phone — the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X — was launched.
  • Apple’s Steve Jobs envisioned a futuristic app store for Apple devices: “It would be a little like a record store, where software would be downloaded over phone lines.”

1990: Archie, the first search engine for the Internet, made its debut as a helpmate for online journalists. It was later followed by one named Veronica.

1994 

  • The first smartphone (which was really more of a personal digital assistant), the IBM Simon, made its debut, complete with productivity apps such as a calculator, sketch pad, and address book. 
  • Yahoo, a “web directory” that was organized hierarchically and could be edited, was launched.

1997

  • The first mobile app, Tapestry, an organizational and contact app created for the PalmPilot, was launched by PDA Software.
  • The first mobile game app, Snake, was released for use on the Nokia 6110 phone.

1998: The Google search engine was launched. The first search query was “Gerhard Casper,” the Stanford president when Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page demoed their algorithm compared with the competition. The game changer for them was PageRank, the algorithm used to rate web-page relevance.

2001: The Apple iPod was released.

2007: The Apple iPhone was released to much fanfare.

2008

  • The Apple App Store opened.
  • The first iPhone app was Remote, used by the store to prototype the ingestion process before entertaining third-party app submissions.

2009: The search engine Microsoft Bing was launched.

2010: The word “app” was the word of the year (according to the American Dialect Society).

2012: Google opened its Google Play Store (the company rebranded the Android Market).

2015: The number of Google searches done on mobile devices was higher than the number done on desktop computers for the first time.

2017: National App Day was designated as December 11.

2021: Google became 100% mobile-first, using the site’s mobile version for both indexing and ranking.

2022: Mobile connections in the United States increased by 9.5 million.

2023

  • Every day, the average American spends more than 4.5 hours engrossed in media on their mobile devices. By contrast, they spend less than 3 hours watching TV.
  • What are they doing (besides possibly not getting enough exercise)? As a group, people spend the most time in audio apps (such as Spotify), then in social media apps, and then in video apps.

Fast-forward 50 years

Almost half a decade since the invention of the first clunk of a cell phone, the universe of mobile devices and mobile UI design has certainly been transformed. Modern apps for smartphones are sophisticated and often optimized for the best user experience. UX design is a thriving industry. And with such well-stocked app stores, consumers often have the same problem they do with other abundant things: too many choices, too much information to wade through.

There are some disadvantages, too. Everyone has noticed someone who can’t get their head out of their apps long enough to go when the light turns green or avoid walking into something or someone in their blindly followed path. Being joined at the hand to a smartphone can also interfere with creativity, says cartoonist Lynda Barry.

The search bar: another key app

But for now, let’s stick with the positives. A bright future is unfolding for all things digital. And along with mobile phones and their modern apps, search — which is itself a good app — has evolved considerably from its humble origins.

When desktop and laptop PCs ruled the digital world, it was relatively easy to type a query in a spacious search box and easily see the results pop up on a large screen.

But now, the popularity of mobile devices has literally shrunken the playing field. First, search functionality had to be adapted to facilitate readability; to help users do mobile navigation on a small screen with a mini keyboard. Search results had to be prioritized and displayed for easy reading on mobile screen sizes. Powerful in-app search and mobile usability had to become a serious priority for companies who didn’t want to lose the competitive edge.

“Search engines now are more than likely the app that has the most utility for the user,” says writer Omar Zahran.…this will only increase as the development of web platforms is only increasing and becoming more accessible…. The search engine…has returned. And this time it has more tricks up its sleeve….”

So that’s where mobile apps and app search stand. More people’s primary computers are their scaled down mobile devices. And the clunky-by-comparison Web is becoming more applike all the time, too.

How will mobile look in another half decade? Where’s the world of mobile apps and search headed next?

Trends shaping mobile life

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented and virtual reality. These components are just some of the key ways that mobile apps are getting smarter. And with successful apps, mobile access will be king, especially when it comes to retail.

The leading mobile-app design improvements include:

Better speed and connectivity with 5G wireless

Instantaneous connections, lower latency, and better reliability are just a few benefits that the latest generation of wireless will provide. 5G will allow mobile apps to be more precise in their geo-targeting and geofencing, thanks to higher radio frequency and shorter wavelengths. 5G also means mobile device batteries will last longer. And app developers can add features without affecting apps’ performance. Mobile video is one area where faster network speeds and low latency will have a substantive impact.

Enhancements from augmented and virtual reality

Augmented reality (AR) technology makes it possible to scan surroundings, then at the same time, analyze the scanned image and show the user virtual content related to what they’re seeing. One basic example is a restaurant providing its QR code on its tables so mobile users can bring up the menu on their devices.

An augmented reality (AR) app can also let a digital phone camera overlay information on what’s in the viewfinder (such as a store building) to offer details about a product, for instance. Retailers can also use AR to give people a more realistic feel for items. Other sample AR applications include filters in messaging apps (e.g., Snapchat), being able to virtually preview furniture in one’s home (e.g., IKEA) and virtually try on clothes and jewelry.

Virtual reality for retail goes one step further, using headsets so shoppers can experience immersive environments, whether they’re exploring entire stores or smaller spaces with 3D products. Analytics Insight projects that the augmented and virtual reality market will reach almost $18 billion by 2028. 

The accessibility of progressive web apps

First, a little background: Microsoft and Google have both prioritized web development, leading to a proliferation of search-engine-accessible apps.

What’s a progressive web app (PWA)? It’s a hybrid of a mobile app and a web page that’s accessible through doing a search, as opposed to a native application, such as those provided in an app store. It serves as an interface for native mobile applications and web pages and doesn’t require downloading software. A PWA also requires less time to load and is less of a burden on a network.

 PWAs are expected to surpass downloadable apps, says Search Engine Watch, which points out that PWAs are also compatible with SEO, since search engines can then gather their content, whereas this isn’t possible with a native app. So PWAs can translate to (much) more traffic for retailers. One example is Alibaba, whose switch to a PWA increased conversion 76 percent on the mobile web.

The speed of accelerated mobile pages

Google, as part of its emphasis on mobile first, and Twitter are conducting an open-source project dedicated to improving the performance of web pages for mobile devices. By reducing the amount of excess code, accelerated mobile pages (AMP) use less data and improve web page loading time.

AMP technology facilitates lightweight pages that load fast on smartphones and tablets. According to Google, AMPs load in less than a second on average and use 10 times less data than non-AMP pages. In terms of app development, AMPs won’t be able to completely replace native apps, but low-quality apps will fade out, and fewer native apps will likely be distributed through app stores.

Personalization from artificial intelligence and machine learning

Mobile app development and the online search industry are both actively being transformed by AI and machine learning. Some companies’ mobile apps personalize aspects of the search and shopping process, another application is to provide AI-empowered chatbots to facilitate user success. Expedient in-app search means the shopper is intuitively and quickly pointed to the desired content or product, while meanwhile, potentially valuable insight on their journey is collected for the business.

At Algolia, our suite of SaaS-based solutions is focused on deciphering user intent and then applying it so our clients can create relevant, personalized search experiences for their users and shoppers. Clients can also take advantage of our transparent relevance logic to combine any existing AI models with our personalization, machine-learning-aided natural language processing (NLP), natural language understanding (NLU), and merchandising. 

Customization with predictive analytics

One AI-powered technology is predictive analytics, which intelligently guesses human interaction using a toolbox of statistics, data mining, and machine learning. For example, a company can progressively “take notes” and learn from search terms that shoppers enter in a retail app, then customize items for different prospects, as well as streamline their mobile apps. Predictive data is instrumental in decisions such as whether customers will choose to use a proposed new feature.

An onslaught of bots

Virtual help is at hand, whether the helper is Siri, Slackbot, or somebotty else caught up in the mobile-device trend of bot enhancement and advancement.

Already, almost 40% of people prefer to talk to a chatbot than to a virtual agent. (Except that an actual live person is still the preferred chatmate, according to J.D. Power.) Still, bots are continuing to rise to the challenge of becoming more lifelike with the help of technologies such as natural language processing (NLP), voice and face recognition, sentiment analysis, and semantic search. 

The conveniences of mobile commerce

Ecommerce apps and sites, make way for mobile commerce (mcommerce): online shopping conducted away from one’s desktop computer through a user interface on a wireless handheld device, namely a smartphone or tablet.

Mcommerce ensures a thoroughly modern experience for shoppers, particularly when it comes to impulse purchasing. When a prospective consumer knows exactly what they want, is dying to get their hands on it, can instantly locate it in your app with your excellent search functionality that you’ve optimized for mobile, and can put it in their shopping bag and head for the virtual exit, the big winner is going to be your conversion rate.

Bluetooth beacons for local connections

Another boon for the advancement of different types of mobile apps is the emergence of Bluetooth beacon technology, radio transmission that lets a company connect to people’s mobile devices when they’re in range.

When that’s (easily) achieved, marketers can then engage with their prospects by either sending them information or collecting data to use in figuring out targeting, such as the person’s exploratory shopping path in a brick-and-mortar store. This process mirrors the use of website tracking and analytics tools used on ecommerce sites with the added twist of mobile.

For instance, if a shopper is browsing shoes at a local department store, with Apple iBeacon technology, for instance, a helpful marketer could electronically get the user’s attention with a personalized message, or even offer a promotion on a physically nearby pair of shoes that’s redeemable through clicking a coupon in the app. That’s a mobile user experience that’s bound to impress, if not actually make a sale. Added bonus: beacons can also be used for ecommerce sites.

The coolness of wearable mobile devices

Coveting an Apple watch? There are lots of other fun wearables, too: fitness trackers (and even fitness-tracking earrings), smart rings, GPS tracking bands, smart glasses, health monitors (including shirts). When it comes to mobile UX design, electronic devices that people wear are — and will continue to be refined as — the Next Big Thing. And as their functionality gets more sophisticated, so will their attendant apps. 

Fewer mobile app choices

One transformative step for mobile apps and search will actually be fewer apps, but the flip side will be better search functionality that covers all the content earlier apps had provided.

Zahran continues:

As Google has added features that add more app-like capability to the search app and website, Microsoft has added something similar within Bing. If you look at a Google Pixel phone today, or even an Android One device, there is no built-in weather app. Instead, there is the home screen widget that has a direct link to Google’s weather site that uses location services to give accurate predictions. In many ways, this has made the need for a third party weather app for most people unnecessary. There are still apps that give great notifications to the minute, but for the masses the forecast solution and discreet notification model is enough.… In the beginning years of the smartphone, [the concept of the search engine] was replaced by apps because the mobile web wasn’t there yet. In the past couple of years, Google and Microsoft are showing us that it is now ready.

How are your mobile app design best practices?

Whether you end up with a native app or a progressive web app, whether you use any or all of the new technologies to embrace mobile minimalism and optimize your user experience, the next era for mobile app design is closing in. Are you ready to prioritize best practices to ensure that your app scores major points on usability with your mobile app users and can meet their specialized search and discovery needs?

By embracing good design guidelines for small screen spaces, eliminating mobile search challenges, and optimizing the mobile experience for your customers, there’s no telling how much you could improve your online user experience and revenue.

Contact us at Algolia so we can help you provide your best app, complete with a forward-thinking mobile search experience that meets your user needs and sails your company into the technological sunrise with the latest in user-friendly mobile design.

About the author
Vincent Caruana

Sr. SEO Web Digital Marketing Manager

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