Is There an App For That?

I’ve never been a heavy user of apps on my iPhone. I would guess that over the last three years that Safari, Facebook, Twitterrific and iPod represent over 95% of my total iPhone app usage. This has changed somewhat since purchasing the iPad 2, I do find myself using a few more apps, notably TweetMag and those damn Smurfs (don’t judge—I’m not going to let them go hungry!).

Here’s my issue, if I want some specific bit of information or functionality, what’s the best way to find it? Take the weather, let’s say I want to know the forecast for Miami—I can either open Safari and search Google, or thumb through pages of brightly colored, cute icons. Which 57×57 square of pixels represents what I’m looking for, and where on this damn phone can I find it? Is it the sun, or one of the birds? I don’t remember. Thus, Safari.

Pretty, and pretty unusable

We’re nearing half a million apps on iOS, which sounds great on paper (and in marketing materials), but feels imposing. Google was born once it became untenable to organize the Web via a directory listing, and it seems like we’re at that stage again with apps. What’s the long-term strategy for organizing, identifying, navigating and launching apps on mobile devices? Today there are two: browsing icons and string-searching app names. Neither of these work at scale. Once you have more than 50 apps, it becomes hard to remember which icon represents which bit of functionality, and search implies I know all of my app’s names. Have you seen app names lately?

Imagine if finding a Web page was only possible by browsing lists of favicons or by an exact match on the page’s title. That’s the state of navigating apps on mobile devices today.

Until someone comes up with a system as good at scale as Google, I’m sticking with the Web.