Published in May-Jun 2021
Apps are the digital world’s gateway to information, entertainment and tasking the boring stuff. Once a lifestyle tool of choice for the tech savvy, today app appeal is seeping its way into the lives of other consumers thrust into accelerated digital adoption as the consequence of a deadly viral infection.
Apps, of course, are nothing new, nor is the fact that they thrive or fail on the basis of their utility – be it to entertain, inform or perform a function remotely.
The IBM Simon, which was launched in 1994, is said to be the first ‘real’ smartphone, and it came with several applications, such as an address book, calendar, calculator and notebook. The Simon was a far cry from the smartphones of today and the apps were pretty basic by today’s standards, but it does underline the point about the utilitarian value of apps. They met a specific need then and this remains their purpose today – look no further than Milk the Cow. As Syed Amir Haleem points out in his article Milk the Cow has, to date, registered over five million downloads and garnered a rating of 4.0 on the Google Play Store. Its purpose you may ask? An extremely important one; it helps pass the time and keeps the mind engaged in moments of utter boredom – something of immense utilitarian value in a lockdown environment. Milk the Cow may fall into the category of frivolous apps, yet all credit to the person (or people) who thought it up and then confidently brought it to market.
Social media apps aside, the most popular apps in Pakistan today are those to do with banking, ride hailing, delivery and online face time. All benefitted from a considerable boost since last year, with some expanding the range of services they offer, along with new iterations that come with easier navigation and convenient options, thereby drawing new users into what can be termed as an app lifestyle.
Undoubtedly, this applies to a very small segment of Pakistani consumers and for the usually cited reasons; lack of digital knowledge and accessibility, as well as cost factors. Although these reasons are valid, the reality is often that when a service meets a real consumer pain point, adoption is not far behind, even within consumer segments normally wary of innovation. (A case in point being Easypaisa, which in its pre-app incarnation met a need for thousands of people who wanted to transfer money from one point to another safely and quickly.) Despite the real barriers to digital entry among the wider segments of the population, it is really a question of marking time until the tipping point occurs. Smartphones have more or less cracked the affordability problem and although internet connectivity remains an issue, penetration will have to increase – and sooner rather than later. In such a scenario, there really should be no reason why apps would remain restricted to specific consumer segments, provided they are able to find both relevance and meet a pain point that would motivate other segments to overcome the barriers to access. A better understanding of these segments is required; ride hailing or grocery delivery for sure will not do the trick, but something else certainly will, if sufficient thought and inventiveness are put into it.
There is then the question of whether apps are losing their relevance and perhaps destined for eventual obsolescence. In the age we live in, where change is rapid, anything is possible and we may soon be doing the stuff we do today (and more) in an altogether different way. We are after all living in the age of exponential technology – both bright and dark in its potential for good or harm. This said, now is perhaps a good idea to pause for a minute and ponder the fact that for the past 18 months, human enterprise has been held hostage by a virus – both fierce and deadly and with plans of sticking around. Was the virus the result of some sort of natural mutation or the product of technology? We may never have the definitive answer.
And although there may not be an app (yet?) to fight the coronavirus, we do have vaccines brought to market in a record-breaking time span. And for this we must thank modern medicine and bio-technology. As it is sometimes said about stuff – it’s complicated!