The app economy is changing. Both Apple and Google have made significant policy announcements that will reshape how apps need to be developed, updated and promoted – changes which ultimately force through the best practice that brands should have adopted years ago. They’ve created a necessity – and an opportunity – for brands to rethink their entire app strategy.
Here’s what Apple and Google have done, why they’ve done it – and what it means for developers like us, and our clients. Have our jargon buster handy, and dig in…
What they’ve done
Apple and Google have made core technical changes to how the App Store and Play Store work. They’ve put stringent restrictions on what has to be in your app, and how it has to be made, before it will be accepted for their respective stores.
Understanding those changes means first understanding how apps work and what development actually involves. In layman’s terms, what an app does for the most part is talk to the phone’s operating system and give instructions: ‘play this’, ‘open that’, or ‘bring up the camera.’ The frameworks that make this possible are called Software Development Kits (SDKs) – and both Apple and Google have released numerous SDKs over the years.
Until now, developers have been able to use older versions of the SDK. Now, both Apple and Google state that for an app to be listed on the marketplace, it has to use their most recent version. In Apple’s case, the app also has to be optimised for the iPhone X.
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What does this mean in practical terms? Let’s say you built an app using what was cutting edge in 2014 but hadn’t made any updates since. Previously, if you wanted to make a minor update such as changing your logo or strapline, your developers would have been able to load up the app, make the changes you wanted to make, and put it straight back on the App Store. Now, that kind of update requires rebuilding the app using the latest SDK, which has had four years of development and updating.
That simple update could easily mean weeks of rebuilding, and potentially the kind of expense that the app cost to develop in the first place. As we’ll see, however, this isn’t a bad thing.
Why they’ve done it
There are two reasons – one to do with technology, the other to do with brand management.
Over the last few years, Apple has introduced “ad-hoc restrictions” to what can and can’t go on the App Store, which have left some apps forced to update or be withdrawn. These restrictions are driven by hardware changes, like the move from 32 bit to 64 bit processors in later generation iPhones, or changing the shape of the phone (which means the look and the UI need redesigning to suit the new screens). Android had similar tech-driven changes, often driven by critical security concerns.
What’s changed now is a matter of policy and focus. Irrespective of how the hardware’s changed, developers now have to use the latest software. This makes life easier for Apple and Google – they no longer have to consider backwards compatibility with the old SDKs – and improves the user experience to boot.
Let’s think about that 2014 app design again. It still works, but if it’s talking to the OS in a way that’s four years out of date, it’s missing out on four years of performance improvements, which means it’s comparatively slow and unreliable.
This feeds into the other reason for the change in policy. Google and Apple have brands to protect, as owners of the Play Store and App Store. The steps they’ve taken force developers’ hands. Developers now have to love their apps. If developers love their apps, the users are more likely to love them too. This virtuous circle of joy and goodwill extends to the platform the user downloaded the app from. Google and Apple want to be synonymous with quality, these new rules are a big leap to ensuring that.
When the app marketplace first opened, it was like the early internet – there was directionless innovation, with everyone building what they wanted, traffic fairly distributed, and lots of small apps which all thought they had potential.
Like the internet as a whole, the app market has centralised around the big players in the last few years – but there are still thousands of small-time projects left over. These are early experiments and clunky designs that don’t really work, but aren’t fully obsolete. The actual problem is with the app’s compatibility, but what the user feels is “the bloody phone’s not working” – they project their poor experience onto the device.
Apple have been reviewing and pulling those apps with no updates and barely any downloads for a while, but in an ad hoc way. Now it’s a matter of policy. If you want to ensure you app will still be available down the line and be able to update your app in the future, you have to put the work in: you have to update your app’s functionality as well as its content. You have to love your app.
What does this mean for app developers and their clients?
Caring for your app and keeping it current is now required rather than merely recommended. Taking a fresh look at your app at least annually, re-tuning its functionality and updating the content at the same time, has always been best practice. The app benefits from design improvements in the newest SDK, security loopholes are closed – the user experience becomes so much better which should be the prime concern for a branded app. Now, this maintenance is essential.
If you’ve been neglecting your app’s core functionality for a few years, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been storing up trouble – but this is the perfect time to catch up with yourself, to make the necessary redevelopments in the build and update the content at the same time. It may take a little longer and cost a little more than your usual content tweaks, but in the long run it’ll breathe new life into your app and your brand.
What clients and developers need to do is strategise. What do you want the app to do in two, three or five years’ time? Will you invest in keeping it current? To make the call, review the role it plays in your branding. Look at your analytics: how are people using the app, what’s it doing for ROI?
If you design an app now, think about how long you want it to work for. When approaching your developers, be explicit about what you want. If your app is meant to be a short-term feature of strategy, that’s OK – design something for this year’s exhibitions, events, guided tours or celebrations, and then withdraw it from the marketplace when it’s no longer relevant. If you want it to be used in the long term, though, you’ll need to review and update every year, putting in the time and money for development updates.
If you love your app your customers will love it – which means maintenance of your app is now a necessity. See it as the positive factor it is – keep your app current, relevant, and valuable for your brand and your users. Get in touch to find out how we can help.