Why there isn't an app for that
One of the best bits of marketing in recent years was the advert for Apple’s iPhone 3 in 2009, which introduced the refrain “there’s an app for that”. It was so successful that Apple trademarked it a year later.
It promoted two powerful messages. First, there would always be an app for something we wanted to do. And second, that an app was inherently good – a shortcut, time-saving, helpful, clever. It drove a new marketplace, now worth billions each year. And it ushered in a new career choice: App Developer became the fastest growing job role within five short years.
As straplines go, it may have been successful. But it hasn’t been helpful.
The legacy is that now we always think in terms of apps. It meant that when the UK Prime Minister said we would have a ‘world-class’ track and trace app to help manage the Covid-19 pandemic, people felt reassured that technology would play a major role in helping to hold the virus at bay, if not stamp it out altogether. Yet only weeks later, the same Prime Minister openly questioned whether any country anywhere in the world had managed to develop an effective track and trace app at all? And whether an app was the right solution anyway?
Leaving the politics aside, the fact that the question is being asked should be of interest. The Covid-19 pandemic: surely there’s an app for that?
Well, no, not necessarily. And that’s the problem, not just for the health crisis we’re currently facing, but for the work we do in learning and development here at International Workplace, and in so many other walks of business and life. It’s not that technology can’t help us address some of these issues (it can); it’s just that a mobile app is not necessarily the right way to put that technology to good use. This might sound like an esoteric debate (who cares about apps?), but the Covid-19 contact tracing app shows why we need to think differently.
The first thing to understand about mobile apps (also known as native apps) is that they need to be installed on your device – a phone, tablet or computer. The reason they need installing is because they package up a lot of the functionality you’d find on a website into an ‘application’ – the program, data and communications interfaces – that gets uploaded to your device. That application is designed to work closely with its operating system, which lets it crunch through data processing or graphics tasks, even if you're offline. Hence the term native app, because it works natively on your device.
These are definitely advantages. But they come at a cost, because getting a mobile app right is really difficult.
There are hundreds of different device and manufacturer combinations, running on a wide range of operating systems. To work effectively, it's go to run smoothly on iOS (for Apple) and Android to cover the broadest base. But there are many variants of these platforms that can’t be overlooked, not least HTC Sense, One UI (Samsung) and Fire OS (Amazon). Mobile apps need to be backward-compatible to be properly 'native' too – the operating system I recall from my first Android phone was known as “Ice Cream Sandwich” but that was 14 versions of Android ago now. Not every one of the world’s 2.7bn smartphone users has a brand-new Samsung Galaxy device. Not every one of the world’s 1.35bn tablet users has a brand-new Apple iPad.
How many devices, and how far back, should an app developer have to account for before the app starts to become unusable?
There’s another problem with mobile apps. While on average we have somewhere between 60 and 90 of them on our smartphones, the ten we use most account for 96% of all our app usage; and we spend three-quarters of our time on just three of them. In fact, 75% of apps are used once after being downloaded, and are never used again .
Concerns around privacy no doubt also add to people’s doubts about native app usage, especially where processing of sensitive personal data might potentially allow a third party to make judgements about their health or impact on freedoms protected in law.
Taken together, these factors perhaps explain why – when it comes to effective contact tracing for Covid-19 – no, there isn’t an app for that. Health service modellers claim that in order to be effective, a contact tracing app must be used (not just downloaded) by about 50-60% of the population. (Experts advising the NHS in April set that target at 80%, by the way.) One of the most successful nations to have developed such a solution is Germany, whose Corona-Warn-App was launched on 15 June. Ten days later it had been downloaded 13 million times: at 15% of the country’s total population, far short of the numbers needed to make the app effective. Ditto Iceland, which enjoyed early success with 38% of the population downloading its mobile app in May, but which “hasn’t helped much” in combating the pandemic. 
Granted, contact tracing apps have been more widely installed in India (over 100 million downloads, but with Covid-19 cases still rising) and China, where the authorities were able to impose downloads and usage at the expense of privacy and freedoms that would not be readily given up among most developed democratic populations. The direction of travel in the latter – where consumers are highly sceptical of any incursions into their privacy – is being driven further by Apple’s recently announced move  to close out many third-party app developers from its operating system. From September 2020 every third party mobile app will need explicit permission from the user to access their user data. An app is going to have to be really useful for people to agree to knowingly share their personal data so freely.
But not all is lost. At the heart of apps lies a misunderstanding about what they are and how they work, and that’s where the good news is hiding. Because a lot of the benefits people associate with mobile apps can actually be delivered without them.
Contact tracing for Covid-19 again shows why.
On 20 June, many in the UK were left confused by the sudden appearance on their Apple or Android phone of a ‘Covid-19 tracing tool’, which they hadn’t downloaded. It was widely mistaken to be the contact tracing app that the UK government had been trialling (and has subsequently decided to abandon), but was in fact an upgrade to the operating system by Apple and Android to allow their phones to work safely and securely with a third-party contact tracing app that a user might have downloaded. In effect, it was an ‘exposure notification’ tool that allowed a third party app to run via the phone’s Bluetooth, and to control the way the data was managed.
To emphasise – it wasn’t a contract tracing app itself, but a way of managing one, very carefully and flawlessly within the phone’s operating system. Software as a Service (SaaS) at its best. Pushed out without the user having to request it (though with the default-set to ‘off’), its swift and near silent appearance showed how functionality developed higher up the IT operating chain can be so much more effective than mobile apps developed as an add-on lower down.
How does all this apply back to learning and development? We’ve been developing a mobile-first SaaS learning application known as Workplace DNA® for over three years now. As part of that process we held three formal focus groups and a lengthy series of alpha and beta tests, all of which often generated the same response: “Will it be available as an app?”
What we think this question usually means is: “Will this work really well on a mobile phone?” We like to think the answer to that is yes – but the reason for that is because it’s not a mobile app as people commonly understand them (we’re not making one) – it’s a web app. So what’s the difference and why is it important?
Providing Workplace DNA® as a mobile app for our clients would require all of their people to download the app onto their different devices. That's a lot of hardware devices and software configurations, and would require a lot of development cost and testing. Assuming you forced your people to install it, there would still be a large percentage who didn’t, and among those, undoubtedly a larger number still who experienced a problem (even with prior extensive user testing). Then there would be the frequent iOS or Android operating system upgrades that risk causing a conflict with the app, sucking more time into upgrades and service issues, costing more money. And there'd still be that 75% who’ve downloaded the mobile app but only used it once (despite being told they have to).
What our clients and their learners tell us is that yes – they do want something that works really well on their mobile phone, tablet or laptop – but they want it to fit in with the flow of their daily working lives. They want an app that the user can experience as seamlessly as interacting with a website – through a web browser they use every day – but which is optimised to work on a mobile device. For that, web apps are ideal.
If they have an LMS already, they want to enrol or learn through that. If their managers already use a reporting system, they want to run their data through that too. It’s much more than just being about single sign on (SSO); it’s about everyone automatically having access to the same learning experience, in a familiar environment, seamlessly maintained and upgraded from a central source, without the need to manually download apps or install updates.
In this world – the world of Workplace DNA® and SaaS applications like it – web apps designed and configured for mobile devices can work this magic without the need for downloads and installs. So you think you're using an app, but in technology terms you're actually viewing a webpage that looks like one.
For organisations, a SaaS approach like this provides a common syntax to allow you to export data out of one application and push it into another one, in real time. You can push/pull data straight into/out of your LMS, your ERP or payroll system, or report through any tool you like. You can 'switch in on' for everyone without nagging them to install it. For learners, it couldn’t be simpler – everything is available in your regular web browser, regardless of your device.
You don’t need a mobile app for that. You need a web app. While they may sound similar, and deliver similar outcomes, the way they achieve them is very, very different. If control, ease of use, privacy and data integration are important to you in your learning and development, then web apps – rather than mobile apps – are the way to go.
David Sharp is CEO of International Workplace, the company behind the Workplace DNA® SaaS learning application.
 Mobile App Download and Usage Statistics (2020),https://buildfire.com/app-statistics/
 Nearly 40% of Icelanders are using a Covid app—and it hasn’t helped much, MIT Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/05/11/1001541/iceland-rakning-c19-covid-contact-tracing/
 Apple Just Crippled IDFA, Sending An $80 Billion Industry Into Upheaval, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2020/06/24/apple-just-made-idfa-opt-in-sending-an-80-billion-industry-into-upheaval/