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App-ocalypse now: Why the 32-bit app purge was a good thing

by Mark Rosner on Nov 7, 2017

With the launch of iOS 11, Apple stopped supporting 32-bit apps on their mobile platform. There was plenty of advance warning for users and developers alike, so the App-ocalypse wasn’t a surprise, but something has been eating at me.  

With 32-bit support dropped, 180,000 apps disappeared from the App Store according to Sensor Tower, depriving users an experience they liked enough to keep using, even though developers didn’t bother to maintain them. It’s these abandoned apps that earned the name “zombies.”

When Apple threw the switch on 32-bit apps, some users of zombie apps were upset their apps and games no longer worked, and that’s always a bad place to leave a consumer. But I argue that this change in technical support policy by Apple is good for the mobile industry, developers, and users alike.

By forcing the obsolescence of unattended apps, Apple is pushing developers to offer better-running apps, with better user experiences. They are also pushing the mobile industry forward by putting pressure on other operating systems and other handset and software OEMs to create better, faster devices and apps of their own.

Lastly, Apple is reinforcing something that many wish wasn’t true, but is: the launching of an app is just the beginning. The quality of a user’s experience is created by how well your app operates, how it’s maintained, and how you improve and add features users want.

Good apps are a long-term relationship and they need support

Mobile apps are a saturated market–about 2.2 million in the App Store and another 3.3 million in Google Play–and the number of apps is only increasing. Differentiating in a marketplace this large can only come from the quality of the user’s in-app experience. So, slow or non-existent updates are a sure sign of experience degradation and won’t be attractive to brands seeking moments of engagement with users.  

This is why Apple’s decision to not support 32-bit apps makes sense; zombie apps offer a sub-par experience and drives down the quality of Apple’s mobile experience. Make no mistake, a lot of brands have woken up to the fact that they need good apps experiences to compete. You can’t take the set-it-and-forget-it approach. In order to serve users at-scale, good apps need maintenance, support, feature improvements, and routine upgrades.

Apps must be updated not just with new features, but for new screen resolutions, and to take advantage of new hardware features. That’s not to mention maintaining servers and managing data on the backend. It can be a slog, but discipline and time will improve your app’s overall performance and offer utility to users.

So why do zombie apps thrive?

For one, they’re fun.  Of the 180,000 32-bit apps on the App Store that were purged, the largest category was games (38,619 to be specific). Education, entertainment, and lifestyle apps followed, according to Sensor Tower.

Second, while it’s really hard to make a cool app, it’s even more difficult to make money from it. Sometimes an app can be very popular, but its developer can’t find a way to grow and make money, so abandoned users are happy as long as they can still do whatever the app lets them do.

In this case, the experience created by zombie apps was strong enough to override low-tech 32-bit limitations in a 4G LTE world. That’s impressive but it wasn’t enough to save 32-bit once the zombies were exposed.

The upshot of App-ocalypse

In the Apple universe of 2.2 million apps and growing, the revenue lost cutting out the 187,000 zombies is less than 1%. But developers are hereby on notice that it’s possible unattended apps may be switched-off or removed without prior notice.

App performance management just became a bigger thing. With the zombie option off the table, now any app that wants to stick around and grow needs to support user experience A to Z. Fortunately, that need is converging with improving performance optimization tools built for apps, and rapidly evolving solutions for app monetization.

At the end of the day, the 32-bit App-ocalypse was a bit anti-climactic. Phone hardware is pretty much interchangeable these days. We’re to the point where devices are perhaps the least important element of the consumer’s experience equation—software is the difference-maker now.

Simply throwing an app together and abandoning it isn’t going to be enough to satisfy Apple or a user because what Apple just eliminated wasn’t 32-bit experiences and zombie apps. It’s the idea that ‘good-enough’ was ever good enough.

Mark Rosner is AppLovin’s Chief Revenue Officer.

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