The Disposable App

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If you think that users deleting your app is a bad thing, get smarter.

A couple of months ago, I was commissioned to build a Google Glass app for WaterWeavers, an exhibition at the Bard Grad Center Gallery. It identified what the user was looking at using image recognition, served them professionally-voiced docent commentary, and worked flawlessly.

When WaterWeavers closes in August 2014, the app will be discarded.

This makes me kind of a modern heretic. Apps are designed to scale, to create an IP core, to earn incremental revenue, to build brand loyalty, to climb the top 10 – not to do one thing and disappear forever.

This is a temporary condition; cyberspace is changing. Small teams (in the case of Voidstar Docent, a one-man team) can rapidly build out an ultra-niche one-shot app and profitize it effectively.

The disposable app is the future. Here are some thoughts.

Apps could be tied to specific locations and events. Imagine a ShopRite app that lets you search the supermarket, or the real-world CES 2014 app that navigates the trade show. The app is worthless out of context, but still clutters the home screen and gets downloaded from app stores. Unless the user declares that he or she wants to keep the app, everybody benefits if the app self-destructs.

Wearables run lean and mean. Whether it’s a HUD like Glass or a wrist machine like a Pebble, task-optimized apps are powerful. I think of Voidstar Docent and the Wearables DevCon app for Pebble, both indispensable tools that are totally worthless outside of their contexts. The reduced scope and chrome in wearables makes them attractive targets for ultra-niche apps developed on the cheap. In this case, disposing the app is a major feature, since milliseconds and milliamps matter.

They’re easier to monetize. At Stevens, the professors drilled in that customers buy solutions, not products. The disposable app is the cleanest possible expression, offering one solution to one problem for one price. On Android, there is a $5 app that lists the last 10 contacts you added, and nothing else. The answers to problems like “who do I know at this conference”, “how do I cite this massive stack of books in MLA”, and “which drugstore within 5 miles has my prescription in stock” can be isolated, packaged and sold.

Users will fear persistent apps. Popups, database breaches, location-based ads, long-term tracking, and backdoor exploits will make users increasingly skeptical of apps that require registration and background processes. Disposable apps are transactional, “one and done”. You don’t need to sign up for anything, or let someone follow you around, to buy something at a store. Telling users that your relationship with them will end when the app closes will become a major value proposition.

No scale necessary. A tiny team and tiny budget could easily start turning a profit after the hundredth download, with no ad partners or microtransactions. If it’s a contextual app, the developers don’t even care – they made their money from the development and maintenance contracts. No faffing about with ad sales, upselling, or services – there’s money made on every unit.

While most startups are still focused on a scale-dependent business model, I hope individuals open their minds a bit. There’s massive profit, and huge benefit, from small and disposable apps.

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