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EVERY day, there seems to be a new mobile app (or two) that we hear about, from helping drivers find parking in the city to helping travellers exchange their foreign currencies with peers at no charge. While consumers love the convenience (and app creators the e-commerce revenues some of these apps bring), investors urge caution on what is beginning to look like app fatigue in the market.
Christopher Quek, who manages Tri5 Ventures' S$5 million fund for seed-stage startups and offers free mentorship to startups under Angels Gate Advisory (AGA), told BT: "Around 95 per cent of over 500 startups we have seen for advisory since 2012 are me-toos or show apps with very similar business models - in particular, the e-commerce, property and Uber or peer-to-peer sharing types."
Trezo (by Singapore Press Holdings) and Shopee (by Garena), for instance, are two mobile marketplace apps launched this year that resemble Carousell, which was founded in 2012 to let users buy and sell items in under 30 seconds. November-launched PAIR Taxi, which allows commuters in Singapore's central business district to share taxi rides during peak hours, was clearly inspired by GrabTaxi, Uber and the like.
"For a person to download an app and retain it, it has to be unique and applicable for a big part of everyday life use," said Mr Quek. There are now over 1.6 million apps available on Google Play (1.5 million on the Apple App Store) since apps emerged in 2008, according to statista; most are in education, lifestyle and entertainment. On average, smartphone users access 27 apps per month, going by a US Nielsen report.
"There's only so much room on our phones and in our lives, and so many apps don't address 'must-have' needs," said Hugh Mason, investor and chief executive of startup accelerator JFDI.
"Rather, they address either peripheral, 'nice-to-have' needs that we only experience once in awhile or problems we never knew we had."
He was surprised at how frequently people assume their idea is unique. "They just don't go on Google to see what's been done before! I'd suggest that almost anything you can imagine has been tried by someone somewhere before. Unfortunately, most people fall in love with their solution - not with the problem they're trying to solve - so they end up creating me-toos."
It is app indifference - not fatigue - that the market is now experiencing, Mr Mason noted.
For Page Advisor (a Singapore-based app that allows users to book over 100 lifestyle services - from cleaning to computer repair to photography - on demand), being mobile-first was a strategic decision.
Chief executive Fabian Lim said: "Through our new bundled services product Packages, customers who venture into malls can use the app to view attractive packages launched by our retail merchants."
This would not have been possible if Page Advisor had started out as a Web-based platform, he said. "Customers will be less motivated to use their mobile devices to search for services once they venture outdoors into the retail malls."
Since its May launch, Page Advisor has been seeking to close pre-Series A funding.
In any case, app fatigue or indifference is a natural part of the app economy's evolution, said Jay Shapiro, founder of Singapore-based app creator AppMakr. "If you look at the word processor space in 1985, there were 15 mainstream apps competing in the Mac and PC space. That quickly whittled down to just Microsoft Word dominating everything and becoming overweight. Now, there's a resurgence of innovative competitors entering the market: Google, Zoho, etc."
The same thing is happening with apps - only much faster, he said. "As a new idea emerges, there will be dozens of apps competing in the space before a winner starts to dominate. What's important is that the number of these ideas, and overall app usage, is steadily increasing."
Over Thanksgiving and Black Friday alone, sales via mobile devices were up 50 per cent this year, accounting for over US$1.5 billion in purchases, according to Adobe.
"This shows that consumers are using apps for their primary shopping more than ever. Moreover, shopping is just one piece of the app economy," said Mr Shapiro. He added: "We are still in the very early days of the app economy. There is a lot of growing, weeding out, and maturing to be done."
While ideas can be similar, what stands out are the founding team's capabilities, app user interface and experience, and clarity of the thought process, said AGA's Mr Quek.
JFDI's Mr Mason agreed: "Just because others have tried and failed doesn't necessarily mean something is a bad idea. We would say . . . if someone had tried to solve the problem, where did they fail and why is the new team better placed to solve it?"
For all that, it has also become much easier to create apps, said Mr Shapiro. "There are now tools at every level of technical competence. Whether it is a drag-and-drop, zero-coding tool like AppMakr (which is good for small businesses that may not have any technical skills) or tools like Appcelerator or Google's Android Studio (both of which help existing Web developers to transition into a mobile environment), all are free to use."