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Smartphones

Why you need to delete zombie apps, and how bots and digital assistants can help

While an app-less future seems almost an inevitability, developers are considering the here and now and looking at ways to better manage the plethora of mobile apps that clog our devices

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 6:32am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 6:31am

Who in Hong Kong doesn’t use the OpenRice phone app to check out a restaurant, or Hong Kong Observatory’s MyObservatory weather app?How many Hongkongers are not chatting on WhatsApp? In China, who isn’t using the WeChat app? Over in South Korea, Kakao Talk reigns supreme.

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That’s great - until they start clogging up your phone, especially if you rely heavily on your mobile device, be it for work or pleasure, or both.

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“In a world where storage limitations mean that mobile users would rather delete an app in order to take two pictures, apps need to become a utility,” says Magnus Jern, president of DMI International, who advises brands including Coca-Cola, BBC and Nike on mobile strategy.

Jern thinks an app needs to be social, a media service, to do with transport and leisure, or offer must-have productivity.

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Think about “sticky” apps that are likely to appear in a lot of people’s top five, and they all fall into those groups: WeChat, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, Snapchat, Instagram, Spotify, YouTube and Evernote.

While the days of mobile apps are far from over (as some doomsayers in the industry have suggested), developers – and users – are now looking at ways the plethora of apps can be better managed.

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It depends where you are and what you want, and it shouldn’t matter which app you happen to have on your phone. Rather than download 10 separate apps, or be pointlessly loyal to one, wouldn’t it be better if you just told your phone – or Facebook, or WeChat, or WhatsApp – where you wanted to go, and were informed of the best option?

Once all about instant messaging, WeChat has become a “social commerce” app in mainland China, where it can be used to pay for almost anything straight from a phone.

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Some of that functionality came to Hong Kong in February as WeChat Pay; you just download the app, activate WeChat Wallet and connect a credit card.

That kind of aggregation will soon be more common. Siri and Google Now are already telling us the weather from unknown sources, and using the web to find out specific information, but expect a lot more app-less help in the years to come.

“In the near future we will see more sophisticated aggregation services,” says Jern, suggesting that Facebook will adds “bots” to its Messenger app that will allow purchases and taxi bookings (though likely tied to one service, at least for now) by integrating apps without the phone owner having to download anything.

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WeChat already offers taxis in China via Didi Kuaidi, while Apple just invested in Didi Chuxing, so is likely lining up something similar.

If you do have an issue with capacity on your phone, there’s an easy way to see what the main culprits are.

iPhone users should tap Settings, choose General, and find Storage & iCloud Usage. Manage Storage then lists all of your apps, and exactly how much space they take up.

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On Android devices, swipe on the notifications centre to see Quick Settings, and push the Settings icon. In Devices, tap Storage & USB, then hit Apps for a list.

If you find any apps there that are taking up about 200MB or more that you rarely use, delete them; even if it’s something you purchased, it will stay on your account so can be downloaded again free of charge at any time.

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You’ll probably find a video app stuffed with downloads you’ve either watched, or won’t ever watch; it’s time for a spring clean.

While “zombie apps” that never get used should be at the front of your own queue for deletion (iResearch reports that only 5 per cent of apps survive for five months after installation), in the long term apps that offer only ring-fenced access to content or services will disappear.

If you want to find a song – almost any song – you go to Spotify. There are gaps in its library of 30 million songs, but not many; Spotify aggregates music brilliantly, so remains a must-have app for music fans. But most apps do one thing, for one company.

Expect more intelligent bots and digital assistants from all the major platforms that get information and offer services completely app-lessly.

Netherlands-based company Unit4 thinks it’s gone one further by creating a digital assistant called Wanda that inserts itself into existing apps.

“We don’t need to build our own screens or apps to accommodate this. We can use somebody else’s, like Skype for Business, Twitter, or Facebook,” says Claus Jepsen, chief architect at Unit4 in Denmark.

“She uses machine learning to predict, learn and provide information proactively to users based upon their behaviour and other data points.”

With app saturation upon us, app downloads decreasing, and bots on the rise, should we put apps on the watch list?

“Not in the short term, because ... apps will still provide a better experience for a lot of our daily tasks,” says Jern.‎ “Instead the aggregation services will integrate with the stand-alone apps.”

Self-driving, artificially intelligent digital assistants and bots will make stand-alone apps less and less necessary, but in the short term the “big” apps are going to get even better.

If you’re a WhatsApp addict, a WeChat devotee, or you swear by Spotify, app-y times are here to stay.