Less apps, more meaning — thinking back to #TNWEurope 2016

A month ago I went to see TNW Europe — a digital conference professing to bring together the best and the brightest, a sort of SXSW hosted in Amsterdam and attended by everyone who in anyone in anything digital.

I did a politically correct write-up over at the Poke blog, if you want to see a simple, un-annotated view of what caught my eye. But thought it might be worth mentioning some of the things that REALLY were game changing for me and I’ll do that over the course of a few posts here.

To start with, here’s a story — I bake. And when I bake, I have a folder called Baking on my Feedly app and I browse in there, I open the recipe in Chrome and scroll down to the ingredients, print screen the part where it says what I need, attach it to a Keep reminder which buzzes when I get off the Tube and closer to my local Sainsbury’s. If they don’t have what I need, I get out my maps and find the closest Waitrose and go there. When I get home, I have my recipe open on my tablet, a measurements app open on my phone and a YouTube instructional video playing on my laptop. That’s three devices and up to 7 apps I need to use to accomplish the simple task of getting supplies and baking a cake.

And here’s the deal, people out there have understood that this is infuriating. So now there’s apps that connect to their own scales and their own recipes to make this job easier. And probably they will also build other apps that connect to your calendar to put suff in there and add reminders. Amazon is making buttons for you to order stuff directly from your fridge. And there will be fridges with built in sensors to email you about the stuff that’s missing. And none of them will be communicating with each other.

But I don’t need more, and smaller, and more specific apps. I need something like IFTTT for my entire life. Something that will identify tasks and allow me to navigate among apps without jumping from one ecosystem to another.

This was what Bill Buxton from Microsoft talked about. That, while the level of satisfaction with individual apps is high, the threshold of frustration with the “app ecosystem” has already been surpassed and we are in full fledged annoyance mode.

“Do not confuse things being connected with things being communicating.” (Bill Buxton, at TNW 2016)

The truth is we do not have an app ecosystem. We have a myriad of apps that do a myriad of specific jobs. But people don’t operate like that. Our brains are able to define and outline specific tasks which are an uninterrupted flow of actions. Apps would need to be an uninterrupted flow of supporting commands. The definition of an ecosystem in biology is

a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.

We will probably never have an app ecosystem because nobody wants to have their apps interacting with other apps. That means relinquishing control and sharing stuff. And the digital economy does not work on that. It works on building closed ecosystems that are pushed to grow until they kill everything else in their path.

I love IFTTT. I also kinda like Google Now, despite it’s “limited remit” within the Google ecosystem of apps. A while back Google announced that the new Android release would also see apps communicating more and search being enabled inside non-communicating apps. I think what they meant to say was inside the apps they would get access to.

It’s as simple as plugs. No device manufacturer wants a universal plug and there will be a long wait before we see apps communicating meaningfully to give users a proper experience.

Caught in the midst of all of this, us, the users will continue to walk around like headless chickens trying to multitask on “our” devices which, more and more, are not built to help us but to keep us busier.

Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store