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Will the App “Bubble” Pop?

By Joe Levi April 19, 2013, 7:29 am

Ask any small child and they’ll tell you: all bubbles pop. For many kids, popping bubbles is exciting and entertaining. Whether it’s soap bubbles, bubble wrap, or bubble gum — like it or not, every bubble is going to pop — eventually.

That’s not the sort of bubble that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about “market bubbles” like the dotcom bubble (that burst in the 1990’s) or the housing/real-estate bubble (that popped around 2007). The kind of bubble that we’re referring to has to do with market saturation, pricing, and many other complex and convoluted factors — in this case, applied to the apps that we run on our smartphones and tablets.


The computer craze

Looking back at history, “killer apps” are what enabled a certain operating system to take significant market share from its competitors. In the PC days that turned out to be spreadsheets and word processing programs. VisiCalc and WordStar were two of the first “killer” apps. Eventually competing programs emerged. Some combined forces and bought out (or were acquired by) their enemies. Others fizzled into antiquity. Some are still around, but we don’t hear about them any more.


Today we’ve pretty much settled upon a fixed set of office apps: word processor, spread sheet, presentations, email, calendar, and contacts. They usually all come bundled together. Sure, there are a few “suites” out there, but only a few. The same goes for apps that play music and movies, though editors seem to be a bit more plentiful. We’ve essentially hit a plateau with apps on our desktops, notebooks, and servers.

Mobile is a different story

As mobile operating systems rose — whether iOS, Android, Windows Phone, or BlackBerry — an ecosystem of apps and entertainment offerings rose around them. These offerings could be downloaded quickly and easily to our mobile devices, many of them for “free”, others at a very low price.

Gone were the $500 word processing programs of yesteryear. (Before you call me liar on that, my first word processing program, Word Perfect 4.1, cost a little more than US$600 — and that was just the word processor, not the entire office suite.) Now you can buy an entire productivity package for a third that cost — at most! But on mobile, apps rarely peak into double-digits, let alone triple!

Instead of apps being written by a few major development houses, they are often created by individuals or small teams of developers. Even some of the “larger” developers are comprised of no more than a handful of coders and designers. Even still, they churn out a significant number of apps that have flooded their respective markets.

fart machine

Unfortunately, not every app is unique. To see what I mean simply head to your favorite app store and search for something — anything — even “fart machine”. Yes, I know it’s crude, but people have already downloaded and installed a grotesque amount of these apps. I don’t know what’s worse, the total number of downloads, or the huge variety of “fart machine” apps that are available! Both are disgusting.

Therein lies my point

There are only so many Internet Radio apps that are worthwhile. Streaming video? A handful. Word processors? Surprisingly few. Maps? Half-a-dozen decent ones, at best. So what makes up the other 199,960-or-so apps available on your platform of choice? Hot air.


I’m not trying to knock any app or app developer, but there are literally tens of thousands of developers writing anywhere from one to dozens of apps — statistically few of them are worth your time to investigate, let alone install. Yet marketing from both camps — propaganda, really — keeps touting how many apps they have, implying that they’re somehow better than their competition who has a few thousand less than they do.


The more apps that are produced the thinner the wall of the “bubble” becomes. Eventually that bubble will burst, potentially bankrupting small development houses and independent developers alike. It won’t be pretty, but it is, I fear, inevitable.

All, however, is not lost. As with any bubble, the strong will survive. The apps that are of poor quality or written by developers who  probably shouldn’t have written them in the first place will litter the virtual ground. The remaining apps will get stronger, better, smoother, faster, and more feature-filled. Instead of having hundreds of apps of one type or another to try and sort through, you’ll have a dozen — probably less.

bail outs

Unless, of course, someone comes along and bails out those that are deemed “too big to fail” or are somehow politically or financially connected to one app store or another. In that case they’ll be infused with a chunk of change that will artificially buoy them up. Instead of failing because they couldn’t succeed on the own merits, they will be selected to win the game at the cost of the better apps. Unfortunate as it may be, that’s the way things work in today’s world.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

So, developers: beware! Now is the time to stockpile your savings. Trim the fat wherever possible, and position your apps to be better (MUCH better) than your competition — and do it today, before it’s too late.

Oh, and after this app bubble has burst, don’t forget about the guy who warned you about it.

Image Credits: Bubble (cc) Slollo, Despicable Me, Ript Apparel, VisiCalc archives, Google Play Store


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