Jun 02, 2014 Why Invisible Apps Might Steal the Limelight—And Soon
Traditional mobile apps depend on visibility: most often, they rely on you to make an active decision to tap an icon and use them. But a new wave of apps has a special power—they keep working even when they are out of view, alerting users when they have something valuable to offer. Such “invisible” apps could lead to exciting new user experiences, especially for users of Android devices.
Swarm, a brand-new spinoff of the Foursquare social networking app, exemplifies this approach to mobile apps. Foursquare allowed users to “check in” to a physical place like a restaurant, allowing friends to see one another’s locations and make arrangements to meet up or show off. By contrast, Swarm just runs continuously in the background once tracking is enabled, pinging the user’s location and automatically alerting her contacts when she’s in the neighborhood. This should make location sharing much easier and more spontaneous—and also, Foursquare hopes, more popular.
Android’s open system and relatively flexible security settings make it the ideal platform for developing such apps, which use contextual data to decide exactly when and how to get the user’s attention. The same functionality is somewhat harder to implement for Apple devices because iOS restricts background processes. Meanwhile, social networking is only one of many possible use cases. For instance, an in-store shopping recommendation app might run invisibly most of the time, and only open when a product the user might like is in the vicinity.
In short, invisible apps could offer rich opportunities for product innovation. But remember, with great power comes great responsibility—or at least great demands on battery life. Apps that are efficient, simple to use, and don’t leave users’ smartphones gasping for a recharge every few hours are likely to win the day.