When Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone in 2007, accelerating the smartphone revolution, the game changing device shipped with just a small set of Apple-produced apps. There was no software development kit (SDK) for third parties to develop apps yet and obviously no app store too. All that changed in early 2008 when the floodgates for app development were opened.

Since then millions of smartphone apps have been built both for the iPhone and Android devices and their impact on society has been nothing short of revolutionary.

But could the app economy be coming to an end?

The recent explosion of innovation in artificial intelligence (AI) and particularly generative AI suggests that the potential conditions for a post-app era might be ahead. It could usher in completely new ways to engage with our devices and for enterprises to deliver products and services.

The idea that the days of apps are numbered is not a new topic. In fact, for over a decade, observers have been suggesting that an app — a standalone software application on a screen of icons that must be located, opened, and engaged with — isn’t the most optimum experience.

Today, some features on a smartphone don’t require these kinds of actions. You can read—and if necessary—respond to a pushed notification, thus avoiding the app altogether. Security can be managed by the device simply looking at your face. Siri and Android’s Google Assistant use voice commands to locate and produce results such as driving directions and playing music.

Smartwatches, which provide many non-app capabilities haven’t displaced the ubiquity of apps, although their remarkable popularity provides an obvious hint that users are open to new ways of engaging with technology.

Despite these innovations, use of apps continues to be the dominant interface between users and their mobile devices.

Smartphones are massively popular, with over six billion in use across the world. When using their mobile devices, American’s spend 88 percent of their time using apps. Games make up a large portion of that percentage, followed by business, education, and lifestyle uses.

Apps have changed how we consume information and entertainment, buy things, and even how we find a date. For enterprises, apps provide a whole new channel for business. A company without at least one app is an outlier today and it may be an omission that is costing it real dollars in lost opportunity.

How is it conceivable that the dominance of standalone, installed apps could be toppled from their leading position? One central answer comes down to whether there is a superior alternative.

Smartphones and apps have consolidated popular needs into a single interface. The list is large and includes common capabilities such as getting directions, paying for things, playing games, consuming information, taking pictures, recording video, and a lot more. There’s no doubt this transition has been game changing. Pick up your phone, locate or download an app, and you’re in business.

But what if you didn’t need to locate an app and instead your needs were simply met by a voice command, or better yet, your device learned about you and anticipated your needs, taking care of them for you?

All of a sudden, apps might seem overly burdensome. With a device this smart, there would be no need to think about which app to use, locate and open it on a device, learn and remember how to use it, and then run through its many steps. In this way, a notable layer of overhead would be removed. Technology would melt into the background and become largely invisible.

What I’m describing is a post-app world that is driven by increasingly capable AI. It’s a future where devices become a connection to your own personal assistant.

Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft, has been writing about the future of software and the notion of software-enabled personal assistants, what he calls agents, for over 30 years. It’s only now that we’ve reached the enabling technology though advances in AI, that his predictions are beginning to be realized. In his words, “You won’t have to use different apps for different tasks. You’ll simply tell your device, in everyday language, what you want to do. And depending on how much information you choose to share with it, the software will be able to respond personally because it will have a rich understanding of your life.”

In a post-app world, even smartphones may be redundant. Humane, a San Francisco-based startup, have developed the Ai Pin. It’s a small wearable device worn like a lapel pin, a little bigger than an Apple Airpods charging case, that responds to voice and hand gestures. It has no screen but can project text and images onto a person’s hand. The developers maintain it has all the features of a smartphone but without the screen. The Ai Pin provides us with a glimpse of what’s next and the possibilities of a completely new marketplace.

There’s no question that what I’m positing here is disruptive. We live in a world of millions of apps and app developers that generate billions of dollars each year. A post-app, or software agent world will drive enormous and often uncomfortable change in such a large and complex industry. It will also require organizations to rethink and reinvent how they engage with customers. But as one age leads to another, more opportunities and innovation could abound.

There’s a long way to go to fully realize this future, but when it happens, everything about how we interact with computers and the world will change.

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