Welcome To My Smart App Hell

Welcome To My Smart App Hell
Image: Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I was in the middle of KonMari-ing my apps when I had a mild, extremely first-world meltdown. Somewhere between trying to decide which health apps I needed to delete and rearranging my screens, I threw my phone down onto the couch, buried my face in my throw pillow, and muffled a scream. There were too many fucking apps.

So why not delete all of them? If I could, I would”app overload comes with being a gadget reviewer. But as I sat there that night, exhausted by deleting every inessential app on my phone, it was obvious that having an app for everything is a truly garbage idea.

To review wearables, I keep a minimum of Apple Health, Activity, Wear OS, Polar Beat, Fitbit, and MapMyRun on my phone at any given time. That’s just so I can compare data points”like, how a new Garmin fares against an Apple Watch on a run. Depending on what I’m testing, that catalogue of apps can swell with one-off companion apps. Sometimes, I’ll have as many as six smartwatch apps to test one device.

It’s the same for smart home gadgets. The Philips Hue bulbs need their own app. My robot vacuum has its own app. My Bluetooth speakers have apps. The freaking Litter Robot my cat takes his dumps in has its own app. Even my toothbrush and water bottle have apps. Hell, even my Google Nest Hub and my Amazon Echo Spot require separate apps even though the whole point of them is so I don’t have to use the other smart home gadget apps. (Except I have to keep all those apps for security updates.) All told, I have somewhere between 40 to 60 apps to do my job and control the devices in my home.

It’s not like I use all these apps every day”but my life is app dependent because that’s exactly how these devices are designed. Right now, everything centres around smartphones. That means tech companies have decided it’s enough to simply slap wifi or Bluetooth on a gizmo, build a companion app, program in some useless reminders, and call it a day. And it’s not just gadgets. These days, it feels like every service I’ve ever used is now pivoting to a standalone app. The other day I tried filing a pet insurance claim online only to see the website urge me to download yet another app to make the process easier. It did not, in fact, make the process easier.

The mental toll is hidden in plain sight. Most of us are well-acquainted with how notifications trigger a Pavlovian addiction to our phones, but it’s also about the space these apps occupy in your mind. You could just have one food delivery app, but there’s always the fear a rival has a better takeout selection. I tried deleting every rideshare app except the now-defunct Juno. Within a few months, I had redownloaded them because as it turns out, each U.S. city has its preferred rideshare. Likewise, it’d sure be nice if all my friends used the same chat apps”but no. My coworkers are on Slack and Signal, half my friends use Instagram and the other half use iMessage, my international friends are on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and my family is on another one. So now, I need seven apps just to keep in touch with everyone.

You could make an argument that this is the free market at work, and that all this convenience is a boon for accessibility and feeling less lonely. There’s less of a case for connected hardware. I’m aware my job as a gadget reviewer makes me an extreme example, but I’m convinced the app-based dream Big Tech is trying to sell us is actually a nightmare.

Here’s what a typical day for me looked like just a few weeks ago.

In the morning, I trudge out of bed and immediately check my wearables to see how I slept. Then, I slather on one too many skincare products. I open up the Neutrogena Skincare 360 app to see how effective my regimen is at eliminating my raccoon eyes and take a selfie. The app spits out a score that always tells me my regimen ain’t doing shit. My smart toothbrush then prompts me to open an app so I can track how well I’ve cleaned my pearly whites. Next, I step on my smart scale. It gives a friendly beep and then sends a report to my phone about my body composition. My smartwatches at this point, may or may not buzz to remind me to stand for a minute or take 250 steps. This is all before 8 a.m., when my Slack starts popping off because the work day has begun.

The rest of the morning is a barrage of notifications reminding me that I have not done enough. I’ve forgotten to log my breakfast. One of four health apps will tell me I have a workout, run, or mindfulness session on the books. I have unread notifications in my email, social media, and messaging apps. At lunch, I often do a testing session which involves strapping on a chest strap and two wearables”one wearable that I’m actually testing, and one for comparison. I’ll slip on my smart running shoes, make sure it pairs to MapMyRun and for once, be thankful that this is a one-stone-two-birds situation. I’ll have one smartwatch on my left wrist, and another on my right, and with lightning-fast fingers, start tracking workouts on both, plus my chest strap and in MapMyRun. I’ll get maybe 30 to 60 minutes of blissful zoning out. Honestly, I think I’d prefer it if these smartwatches and trackers skipped my phone entirely and simply uploaded my results onto a password-protected website.

The afternoon is another deluge of notifications from apps that mean well. I’m actually militant about curating what apps are allowed to annoy me, but again, I have to keep some on just to test whether a smartwatch reliably pushes notifications. These few select apps are enough to trigger the persistent feeling that perhaps I could be better if I tried harder. Before the day ends, I’ll be reminded that I forgot to log lunch and dinner, and most likely, a gadget of mine will start malfunctioning. The most frequent culprit is my robot vacuum”it’s coming on two years now and more often than not, Google Assistant or Alexa will tell me the little bugger isn’t responding when I try to start a clean via voice command.

I’d love to say this is a problem of my own making, except I’m not the only one. As of 2017, the average smartphone user had 80 apps on their phone and regularly used 40 every month. Part of the problem is we haven’t yet evolved beyond smartphones, and so long as they’re the central hub around which everything operates, the wave of useless companion apps isn’t likely to ebb. I’m not proposing we go back to the pre-smartphone era. I’m just gently suggesting that maybe there’s a more elegant solution for centralizing connectivity, for giving you the information and reminders you need, without cluttering up your digital or mental space.

Maybe we’re wrong in thinking there should be an app for every little thing.