Don't get too used to the "app for everything" era. In just a few years it could be over.
So said a group of mobile application masterminds on a panel moderated by Internet Week chairman David-Michel Davies Thursday.
"I think apps are dead in three to five years," said Seth Sternberg, CEO and founder of Meebo, which connects people with their friends across the Web.
As the links between mobile devices and the cloud speed up, he added, applications won't need to be stored locally to deliver a snappy experience.
The cutesy, bright-colored icons (or "chicklets") that make it easy to open different programs will stay, but the distinct underlying software will go.
That's a relief for developers who won't need to build separate programs for iPhones, BlackBerrys, Android phones, and assorted other devices, which Sternberg labeled "a total pain in the butt."
For advertisers, that means the ability to track users as they hop among different programs—from The New York Times "app" to the Facebook "app" and beyond—and then potentially serve up relevant ads.
"It's very hard to understand a unique user in each one of those app environments and so your ability to monetize against them, whether it's for advertising or other types of models, becomes a lot more difficult," said Shawn Gunn, head of strategic advertising for mapping and location data company Navteq. "You have much better targeting on the Web because you can kind of persistently track a user. . . . That's a big challenge today in mobile."
As developers move toward more open platforms and remove the silos, he said, "apps" will give way to mobile experiences that are more like the Web. In the meantime, the next step for app developers is teaming up with each other, said Jared Hecht, co-founder of group chat service GroupMe.
Aside from sign-ins using Facebook Connect, or integrations between Twitter, Foursquare, and Instagram, Hecht noted that apps tend to stand alone. His company just launched a new feature for GroupMe that lets users bounce between group chats, and an iPhone app for the music festival Bonnaroo, and he thinks other, similar partnerships between apps are on the way.
The panelists agreed that as mobile applications collect more data about users, including especially sensitive location information, developers need to mind the line between convenient and creepy.
"It's up to the owners of info to maintain the bond of trust with those people and that bond can be easily broken if it's misused," said Joe Rork, product manager for MyFord mobile applications. "It's a very delicate balance to make sure you provide just enough information that makes it valuable to them but not go too far."