Whither native app developers?

I’ve noticed something interesting lately. Five years ago, senior developers with significant iOS experience available for new work seemed approximately as easy to find as unicorns who also laid golden eggs. Even two years ago, they were awfully hard to unearth. This year, though? Maybe it’s just a random blip — but this year, like the truth, they seem to be out there. And a few things make me suspect it’s not a blip.

App Annie’s “State of Mobile 2019” refers obliquely to “mobile maturity,” i.e. the point at which the number of downloads per year flattens out in a given market. That same report shows that the US is there; the number of app downloads in the US increased a paltry 5% from 2016 to 2018 — though it’s worth noting that app revenue which flowed through the app store increased 70% in that same time.

Meanwhile, the number of apps in the iOS App Store is essentially flat over the last two years — this has been influenced by more stringent approval standards from Apple, yes, but is still noteworthy.

Meanwhile meanwhile, non-native cross-platform development platforms are growing in popularity. “We scanned Microsoft’s iOS and Android apps and discovered that 38 of them, including the likes of Word, Excel, Xbox, and many others, were recently updated to include React Native” reports AppFigures, who add “In the last year use of React Native has nearly doubled.”

I can confirm anecdotally that clients are increasingly interested in building cross-platform apps, or at least simple cross-platform apps, in React Native. I certainly don’t think this is always the right move — I wrote about this decision and its trade-offs for ExtraCrunch a couple of months ago — but It’s certainly a more viable option than Cordova/Ionic, which I’ve had nothing but multiple terrible experiences with over the years. And then there’s the slow but distinct rise of PWAs.

Is the app boom over? Are today’s app experts doomed to become the COBOL programmers of tomorrow? Not so fast. Native development tools and technologies have gotten a lot better in that time, too. (For instance, I’ve never talked to anyone who doesn’t vastly prefer Swift to Objective-C, and while Kotlin is newer, it seems to be on a similar trajectory for Android.) And we’re still seeing consistent growth in a “long tail” of new app development, which, instead of being built for mass consumer or enterprise-wide audiences, are built and iterated for very specific business needs.

But I’d still feel at least slightly uneasy about going all-in as a specialist app developer if I was early in my career. Not because the market’s going to go away … but because, barring some new transcendent technology available only on phones (maybe some AR breakthrough?) the relentless growth and ever-increasing demand of yesteryear is, in mature markets like the US, apparently gone for the foreseeable future. There’s still some growth, but it seems that’s being sopped up by the rise of non-native development.

In short, for the first time since the launch of the App Store it’s possible to at least envision a future in which the demand for native app developers begins to diminish. It’s certainly not the only possible future. This certainly isn’t the conventional wisdom — just ask any of the hordes of Android developers flocking to Google I/O in May, or WWDC in June. But it might be worth building up a backup strategy, just in case.