Just like so many of us at the end of the holidays, mobile applications are experiencing a lot of bloat. It’s as if mobile app designers think they are building applications for a PC with an enormous hard drive or servers with many gigabytes of RAM and blistering fast processor. Mobile devices are undoubtedly more powerful than the earlier generations but they are much more modest platforms compared to a PC. That’s okay because mobile devices are used differently than a PC, to consume and communicate rather than create content for example. Why then do we continue to see applications growing to (relatively) monstrous proportions? Is it sloppy programming brought on by decades of hefty platforms? Or maybe it’s a sense that bigger is better no matter the platform.
Let me provide two examples. The first is Microsoft’s OneNote. OneNote is a great program for keeping and organizing unstructured information (such as analyst briefing notes – hint hint). Competitor Evernote is excellent for taking quick notes, making lists, and creating web clippings but OneNote has superior organization capabilities and integrates seamlessly into Microsoft Office applications. At present, OneNote is the single largest program, by far, on my Android tablet. It’s roughly twice the size of Evernote and most of it (85%) is code not data.
Similarly, the awesome calendar application called Cal from Any.do, is a much superior app compared to the generic Android calendar. The interface is more intuitive, less busy, and just plain nice to look at. Cal is also more than twenty times larger than the standard Android application. That’s a huge difference. 25MB is a lot of space on a limited device especially when the alternative is just a bit over one megabyte.
I’ve seen this movie before, back in the early days of the PC. At that time, a PC was an incredibly limited device with very small amounts of storage, memory, and processing power. End-users had to constantly clear applications and data off their hard drives and refrain from running too many programs at once. To simply operate the device you needed a certain degree of technical acumen because of the maintenance involved. Most corporations installed a limited number of applications on company PCs and wouldn’t allow anyone outside of IT to install anything on them.
That approach won’t work today. The BYOD movement has made managing mobile devices the end-user’s problem. Application bloat not only creates a management task for IT but a headache for the average knowledge worker. Unlike the early days of the PC era, end-users have become used to nearly unlimited resources and no longer have the skills or inclination to actively manage their devices. Big apps force end-users to deal with their devices as technology instead of tools, which just won’t fly anymore.
This is the danger zone for the app developer. From the end-users perspective, installing a fat app screws up their devices and they don’t care why. Their solution is not to move an app to secondary USB storage or clean up their cache space. Instead, they just start removing applications starting with the last one they installed. Paid applications will likely stay even over more useful ones. For the developer, this is a lot of lost revenue and opportunity. Once an end-user deletes the bloatware, they are unlikely to pay for an upgraded version and certainly will not see ads.
It’s amazing how history repeats itself. The proliferation of applications that were too big for the PCs of the time caused delays in widespread adoption of many types of applications, especially graphics applications. It seems like the software industry is destined to make the same mistakes again; vendors acting like theirs is the only application on a device and choosing eye candy over useful functionality leading to obese software. Now would be a good time to reassess that strategy.