It’s easy to forget that mobile devices as we now know them have barely existed for a decade, considering how ubiquitous they are.

According to Pew Research, 81% of US adults own smartphones—including 96% of 18-29-year-olds and 96% of 30-49-year-olds. In 2018 the number of “smartphone-dependent” US adults reached 20%—that is to say, adults who relied on smartphones as their primary source of internet connectivity. According to Tech Times, 3.5 billion smartphones are in circulation globally.

The importance of mobile apps has marched hand-in-hand with the importance of the devices themselves. Tech Times notes that of the 2.7 hours per day consumers spend on smartphones, 86% of that time is spent on apps.

Transportation tech company IDOT notes that customers tend to download free mobile apps and spend twice as much time on them as a browser website.

The mobile app market is expected to reach $407.31 billion by 2026, with a CAGR of 18.4% from 2019 to 2026, according to Allied Market Research. Since the announcement of the concept by the then-CEO of Google in 2010, we now live in a world of “Mobile First” design, where tech giants will consider their mobile digital experience before their large-screen experience as a matter of best practices.

It’s hard to think of a comparable market segment, which has become so important over such a short period of time. The consequence—mobile app development is a comparatively young tech segment and still in its growing pains. Developers gain new insights about user behavior every year.

The result is a tech segment in a constant state of flux. Yesterday’s best practices are today’s old hat. If you want to compete in the mobile app space, you have to stay on the cutting edge to remain among the best mobile app developers. The alternative is to be nowhere at all.

So what’s coming next? Here are eight mobile app development trends to watch for in 2021.

Mobile App Development Trend 1: AI and the Acceleration of Data-Driven Products

Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology continues to leap forward in gigantic strides. No longer locked behind a velvet rope, powerful AI tools like machine learning, computer vision, image and video processing, and natural language processing (NLP) enjoy widespread accessibility in every tech arena.

This is perhaps most visible in medical technology. The time-to-development cycle of a new pharmaceutical is usually ten years, the price tag $2.6 billion on average. InSilico, in partnership with the University of Toronto, innovated a new drug for tissue scarring in 46 days with the help of machine learning.

Even more dramatically, two major pharma companies developed vaccines for the deadly SARS CoV-2 (“new coronavirus”) less than a year after the viral genome was made public—an unprecedented speed of development, again aided by machine learning.

AI continues to acquire the capacity for higher and higher functions. Humans coexist and collaborate with AI helpers more and more, often in ways they don’t even realize. Curing deadly diseases is really just the beginning. An incomplete list in which AI will drive the future of mobile app development would include:

Data-Driven Development. Apps that start with assumptions are risky propositions. Apps that start with data analysis tend to do better. Apps have attempted to use data as their guiding star for years, iterating digital products through multiple gauntlets of customer feedback.

The hallmark of machine learning is that it can perform data-driven tasks better than any one human can. It would take centuries for one human to process the volume of data that today’s ML can process in minutes. Easy access to fast data analysis can help developers design better products through fewer iterations.

Real-Time Personalization on the “Edge.” Web apps like Amazon, Alibaba, and Google built their reputations on real-time personalization—as fast as you can input data, these apps personalize your experience. The democratization of AI tech means that more and more apps will mimic this effect, from personalized searches to product recommendations to customer journeys.

Most AI personalization takes place in the Cloud, but in 2021 app developers will start relocating AI algorithms to take place in the device itself—known as “the Edge,” as opposed to the Cloud—as a native function of the app, enabling personalization that doesn’t depend on Cloud connectivity.

Human-AI Cooperation. In 2021 it will become increasingly normal to have AI interactions as a part of day-to-day life. Whereas chatbots seemed invasive in their infant years, expect users to become more willing to interact with them as they evolve to become more helpful and “lifelike.” Chatbots and other human-AI cooperative interactions have only just scratched the surface of their ability to streamline users’ daily lives.

Mobile App Development Trend 2: The Rise of Voice as an Interaction

People have been talking into phones for decades. When the “Mobile First” transition made mobile devices more relevant than personal computers, you can imagine a marketplace that was begging for voice interaction.

The rise of smartwatches and other wearables made this development even more inevitable, inspired by devices from spy movies. If you could talk to a phone when someone was on the other line, why not talk to it when no one was on the other line … except for installed software?

Voice-activated mobile assistants like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant have become household names—and, in the case of smart home enthusiasts, de-facto family members.

Dragon by Nuance claims up to 99% accuracy in its industry-leading voice recognition algorithm. In 2021 we expect more and more apps for the smartphone, tablet, or smartwatch to skip the mobile touchscreen interface altogether, relying on voice-activated APIs made available to developers by top distributors, including:

  • Siri Shortcuts, for iOS developers.
  • Google Cloud Text-to-Speech API, available in 14 languages with 31 variants.
  • Azure Speech APIs, which includes Bing Speech, Speaker Recognition, Custom Speech Service, and Translation Speech.
  • Amazon Transcribe, a speech-to-text API available in English and Spanish.

It’s worth noting that, as was the case with the rise in smartphones, this market is highly fragmented as different companies vie for user share. For a seamless experience, this pushes customers towards “picking a team”, for example, an Amazon Echo won’t deliver the same functionality as Siri depending on what devices you are using

Mobile App Development Trend 3: Augmented Reality Makes the Leap

Proposed as early as the 1960s, Augmented Reality (AR) has been a long time coming. It has only become practical in the last few years.

In the last few years, mobile processing power, small-device storage capacity, and ubiquity of access to Cloud data have finally caught up with the AR dream. Look for an explosion in its popularity as enterprises and mobile app developers come to terms with its power.

Distinct from “Virtual Reality (VR),” AR creates an interactive experience by adding computer-generated content to the surrounding environment, elevating and gamifying a user’s surroundings. It does this with a combination of visual tracking, inertial tracking, and sensor net tracking to perceive the environment and incorporate images, sounds, and other sensory experiences.

Here are some areas where we’re starting to see app developers adopt AR for mobile applications that expect to see an even bigger uptick in 2021:

Education. Groundbreaking apps use AR to add educational content to the surroundings. Shapes is an app that helps grade-school children learn geometry by animating 3D shapes onto nearby surfaces, while Nano Simbox uses 3D renderings to illustrate how molecules interact within the surrounding environment.

Home Design. AR has obvious implications for home design. After all, you don’t have to wonder if a carpet or piece of furniture will fit with your decor or into the available space when you can conjure a virtual version of the piece into the space before you buy. The Kavtek app is becoming especially popular among real estate agents. It allows potential buyers to swap the flooring, paint the walls, swap appliances, and add furniture to a vacant home, helping them feel a sense of ownership of the property before they buy.

Marketing. The ARILYN App allows users to harness the industry-leading Arilyn Manager platform to add custom AR to an environment, no coding necessary. Marketing professionals are chomping at the bit to festoon the virtual world with AR marketing messages, or add a layer of tech-forward AR excitement to a promotional event.

Luckily for mobile app developers and their clients, incorporating AR into their custom applications is easier than ever. Apple has made their iOS framework ARKid available to developers, while Google has done the same with their own ARtoolkit, Android Things.

Mobile App Development Trend 4: Investment in IoT Picks Up

Non-computer devices have been connecting to the internet since the 1990s. You could argue that the Internet of Things was born at that time, but Cisco Systems defined the “Internet of Things” (IoT) as existing once there were more objects connected to the internet than there were people connected to the internet.

The things/people ratio exploded from 0.08 in 2003 to 1.84 in 2010, so the Cisco-defined IoT came into being around 2010. Every device that connects to the internet adds to the IoT.

It’s adding up fast, too. According to Mordor Intelligence, the global IoT industry is expected to surpass $1.26 trillion by 2025, at a CAGR of 10.53% between 2020 and 2025. From WiFi-enabled light bulbs to implanted cranial EEG readers, there are currently about 7 billion IoT devices connected to the internet—soon to surpass the number of people on earth, let alone people connected to the internet.

Every new IoT device will need an app to interface with it. After all, that lightbulb is useless without an app to turn it on; the EEG useless without an app to read it. A huge segment of the mobile app development industry will devote itself to designing the apps humans need to interact with this ballooning IoT.

As a result, developers are rallying behind a set of best practices around IoT app development, including:

Consider the Requirements. Device designers often pack their ideas with features. Developers should take note of these features and build it into the app requirements, but depending on the product strategy, the first iteration might not have all these features yet. Developers often focus on creating a minimum viable product (MVP) to bring to market, saving ancillary features for later iterations.

Focus on the User, not the Product. Developers have shifted from a “product-centric” design ethic to a “user-centered” design ethic. This means considering UX in advance and incorporating as much user feedback as early in the process as possible.

Attention to Integration. IoT devices are integration-intensive, with hardware, an operating system, network connectivity, and protocols to balance. Seamless integration is necessary for at-will interaction between the app and the device, a key challenge that app developers must approach fresh with each new app.

Address Extensibility. Consider changes the device might undergo in the future, or at least allow for the possibility of changes. Some mobile app developers use hybrid code to save money in the early stages, but this could lay the groundwork for expensive custom code updates as the device evolves. Native code, while more expensive and expert-intensive up front, is much easier to change and iterate.

Go Agile. Agile development methodology has its detractors, but to develop mobile apps for IoT devices it is really the best choice. Agile allows developers to quickly create an MVP, bring it to market, and collect the feedback needed to improve it.

Mobile App Development Trend 5: The 5G Effect Is Everywhere

The fifth generation of broadband cellular connectivity really is a quantum leap forward. It’s not just the increased download speeds of up to 10Gb/s. The increased bandwidth of 5G makes it possible that 5G will become the standard not only for smartphone data connectivity, but for personal computers and laptops as well.

Up from only 13 million 5G adopters in 2019, Swedish telecom company Ericsson expects the 5G subscriber base to reach 2.6 billion by 2025.

Increasingly able to expect a 5G user base, app developers can design apps for a network that enjoys little or no latency, high connection density, improved precision, and longer battery life.

This has many implications on the development of mobile apps, including:

Less Dependence on Hardware. With faster real-time connectivity, mobile apps that connect to 5G networks have to depend less on the device hardware, including native storage and memory.

More Use of GPS Navigation. GPS navigation is nothing new, but it’s been largely limited to apps like Apple Maps and Google Maps, whose sole purpose is navigation. The speed of 5G, combined with better processors and storage, will allow more apps, including apps in the tourism and gaming industries, to integrate GPS navigation into their interface.

Faster File Transfers. Faster download speeds mean that app developers can depend on users being willing to execute more file transfer functions in an app, now that network speeds don’t slow them down. It’s a big step in the direction of mobile devices replacing their PC predecessors.

More Features. Of course, faster speeds with less latency will allow developers to create apps with more features than ever before. The 5G compatriot of mobile apps will storm into 2021 with just as big a quantum leap as the network itself.

Mobile App Development Trend 6: Foldable Displays Find Footing

Who ever thought the flip phone would come back into vogue, outside of technophobe circles that believe smartphones represent the end of civil society?

Nevertheless, hardware developers have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make “foldable” devices of all stripes cost-effective for consumers. The idea is to take devices of traditional sizes and allow them to “unfold” like books, revealing expansive display sizes comparable to a tablet or laptop PC.

In the other direction, some foldable devices seek to take the typical smartphone display and fold it in half, making the device even more pocket-sized.

Leading consumer mobile devices with foldable displays include:

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2. This folding smartphone has a 6.2-inch external display, but when unfolded like a book features a glass-protected 7.2-inch internal tablet display.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5G. Conversely, the Z Flip boasts a 6.7-inch display that folds in half to fit in even the smallest pockets or purses.

Motorola 5G Razr. One of the classic flip phone designs finds new life in the form of a smartphone with a 6.2-inch display, which flips open in classic “Star Trek communicator” fashion.

Microsoft Surface Duo. This evolution of the popular tablet features two 5.6-inch displays, which fold on a hinge to form an 8.1-inch display.

These devices are only just attaining consumer-friendly prices, meaning it’s time for app developers to consider them. One of the reasons these devices haven’t caught on is because developers are not optimizing their apps to accommodate the larger screen sizes, nor do they account for the crease or take advantage of the “dual-display” functionality of these devices.

As the tech becomes more cost-effective, expect more developers in 2021 to design apps with 5G foldable devices in mind, especially in sectors like healthcare, education, and eCommerce.

Mobile App Development Trend 7: Building for Beacon Technology

Beacons don’t get much attention, but they are everywhere. Millions of beacons have been installed in the last few years, with the intent of streamlining shopping experiences and making mobile devices more responsive to their surroundings. This is expected to have the effect of improving proximity-based searches and helping marketers reach the right person with the right message.

One of the reasons beacon technology gets less ink than, say, blockchain or 5G is because it is deceptively simple. The device is basically just a CPU and a radio, which connects with nearby devices with low-energy Bluetooth. It’s not the sexiest device on the tech horizon.

But big changes come in small packages. Widespread adoption of beacon tech has profound implications for the development of mobile apps that enable us to interact with our surroundings. Industries that will feel the impact in 2021 include:

Healthcare. Beacon technology stands to revolutionize medical record keeping by updating patient medical records based on a patient’s mobile app history. When the patient arrives at the doctor’s office, the installed beacon can forward the relevant records to the correct provider. Beacons can also help doctors keep track of patients within hospitals, connect with wearable devices, and add to the wealth of data that healthcare innovators use to diagnose, triage, and treat.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, beacons played a leading role in contact tracing efforts, with both Apple and Google promulgating “exposure-notification” APIs for beacon integration.

Retail. Millions of beacons installed in US retail stores have the potential to push product information to shoppers’ phones as notifications, getting the right messages to them at the right time and enabling them to make better, quicker buying decisions.

Education. Universities and colleges are just scratching the surface of beacon technology and its capacity to help students and faculty navigate campuses, libraries, and research facilities. Beacons can also enhance the classroom experience by enabling easy student check-ins, as well as sharing of syllabi, lecture notes, lecture recordings, and much more.

Travel and Hospitality. The travel and hospitality industries are practically made for the travel and hospitality industry, which are especially location-dependent. Beacons can help tourists navigate airports, check into hotels, immerse themselves in museums, discover souvenirs, and interact with local attractions and landmarks.

App developers of 2021 will benefit from access to Eddystone, the open-source language needed to make apps interact with the widely-adopted Google Beacon platform. Expect developers to put a lot of miles on Eddystone.

To play in the beacon sandbox, app developers will need to consider challenges like the permission matrix so users can easily grant access to beacons congruent with their comfort level, as well as the receiver hardware and metadata.

Mobile App Development Trend 8: More Mobile Wallets

Mobile wallets are not new—they go back as far as PayPal. But they are picking up steam. Mobile wallet transactions have ballooned 35% in 2020. An estimated $14 trillion in transactions are expected to traverse mobile wallets by 2020, up from $1.3 trillion in 2017.

Not only do these systems offer more security than a physical card (particularly when interacting with a POS terminal) through tokenization, but they can also prove faster and more convenient while reducing physical interaction with the device, something that has proved to be especially desirable in the wake of COVID-19.

Explosive growth in huge, tech-forward markets like China—where mobile wallets enjoyed 32% growth in 2020 amid a 1.5 billion population—is further evidence of the mobile wallet explosion. Over 58% of all payments in China are expected to traverse third-party payment networks by 2026 according to Research & Markets.

Additionally, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum mandate advances in mobile wallet technology, since these currencies have no physical manifestation and exist solely in the Cloud.

Mobile app developers have taken notice. Look for more mobile wallet integrations, both crypto and fiat, in the mobile apps of 2021. Features on the horizon include:

Near-Field Communication Payments. Near-field communication (NFC) payments allow two devices to interact and exchange money—a smartphone with a mobile wallet and a mobile point-of-sale, for example. Proper attention needs to be paid to encryption and tokenization as more and more transactions enter the local ether.

Biometric Security. Fingerprint, face recognition, voice recognition, even retinal scan biometrics are becoming the standard for data access credentials, especially where currency is at stake. Developers need to expect biometric security to be the rule, not the exception.

Voice Activated Payment. Continuing the trend of bypassing the touch screen, developers expect to tackle the problem of making payments by voice command—and the ensuing security challenges raised by that vision of convenience.

Loyalty Programs. Consumers expect to be rewarded with loyalty, giving app developers an opportunity to price in rewards points that can be seamlessly redeemed within the app.

Conclusion

It’s a good year to be in app development. That was true of last year and the year before that, but it keeps getting better. Mobile devices continue to gain market share, while apps continue to foster user behaviors advantages to companies while providing consumers advantages in their daily life—making it easier to work, play, shop, and consume.

We expect 2021 to welcome innovations in app development along multiple vectors, including but not limited to:

  • Widespread adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its use in data-driven design.
  • The rise of voice interaction as a preferred interface.
  • Augmented Reality (AR) that leaps outside of the gaming world and into the mainstream.
  • Further investment in IoT and the ensuing opportunities for app development.
  • Harnessing the power of 5G to make faster, more robust apps.
  • A breakout year for foldable mobile displays and a wealth of app design innovations to follow.
  • New possibilities in beacon technology to create a more interactive experience of our environment.
  • Next-level developments in mobile wallet tech that push us towards a cashless society.

The world has gotten smaller, the challenges bigger, but mobile app development marches on. Some team is probably developing an app to promulgate World Peace. If so, we wouldn’t bet against them.

Margaret Jastrebski is Chief Growth Officer at Table XI. 

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