‘Software is eating the world’ — and the pandemic made us hungry for more

by: | Apr 13, 2021

When it comes to technology, my pandemic story isn’t all that remarkable. It’s not all that different from the many people I know — and presumably the many I don’t.

The pandemic disrupted our old set of habits and routines. We’ve established new habits. And our daily habits will never return to the way they were. As many people have said, there’s no going back.

That includes our relationship with technology.

The pandemic has made us more reliant on apps and digital experiences than ever before. We’ve come to depend on apps and the Internet to stay connected with our loved ones — at a time when we’ve needed it most.

While the pandemic forced us into using some apps that weren’t very polished, we may not be as tolerant of bad UX in a post-pandemic world

We’ve also used apps more frequently to do things and access services that we no longer could in the closed-down physical world. We’ve used exercise apps instead of going to the gym. We’ve ordered groceries online instead of going to supermarkets. We’ve visited virtual museums instead of being there in person. We’ve streamed more movies because we can’t go to theatres.

But — and it’s a BIG but — we’ve also experienced a lot of technology pain. Pain caused by confusing interfaces, confounding software limitations, and frustrating blockers in various apps. The kind of pain that needs to be solved through simpler experiences tailored to the suddenly much larger audience of users.

And that’s precisely why I think there’s a massive opportunity.

For companies. For brands. And for app developers.

‘Software is eating the world’

In 2011, famed Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote a seminal essay titled “Why Software is Eating the World.” He predicted a technology revolution — led by software.

He was right, of course. The past decade has produced countless software innovations built upon rapid advances in web and mobile technologies.

However, it’s one thing for products and services to gain an audience of mostly early adopters and tech enthusiasts — people like me. But it’s quite another for them to be so ubiquitous that they span generations and cross demographics. COVID was a catalyst that made this happen.

A few notable examples:

  • Video calling: Zoom is now a household name. The video conferencing service saw daily participants grow from 10 million in December 2019 to more than 300 million in October 2020. Similar services like Microsoft Teams and Google Meet also saw explosive growth.
  • Food delivery: The top four food-delivery apps more than doubled their revenue from April to September of 2020, as compared to the same pre-pandemic period in 2019.
  • Home exercise: Peloton recently reported 1.67 million connected subscribers, an increase of 134%. Meanwhile, Apple introduced a fitness subscription app that’s rapidly gaining traction — and Google made a big bet in fitness by acquiring Fitbit.

And maybe the stat that best summarizes our pandemic-fueled dependence on all things digital:

  • Internet use has exploded: The OpenVault Broadband Insights (OVBI) report found that COVID-19 drove a 51% increase in overall broadband traffic in the fourth quarter of 2020 — compared to the same period in 2019.

When we look back at the pandemic, technology will hold a place in the historical narrative. COVID-19 will be considered the “tipping point” for some software-based products and services — and the disruption that accelerated the demise of other industries.

As we think about our personal experiences with technology during the pandemic, many of us will recall some important firsts. We’ll remember how it brought us together with our loved ones in ways it hadn’t before. And we’ll also remember some of the technology and app challenges we experienced. I know I will.

Promise and pain: My personal pandemic tech experience

I’ve worked in technology for more than 20 years and consider myself an earlyish adopter. I was already using a lot of software and connected services before the pandemic. Still, the pandemic spawned new habits for me and increased the frequency of others.

Our household streams more entertainment — and we $ubscribe to more services than ever. I virtually connect with more people using various video and communication apps. I now regularly play darts in my garage and use Google Meet to connect with my brothers from their respective homes. As a family, we host periodic virtual game nights with friends. We order take-out from local restaurants through apps frequently. And I’ve had video calls with doctors — using custom software for secure telemedicine.

As I think about the past year, the most remarkable part of my pandemic tech experience is how the people around me used it. This is about my mom — and other seniors like her. It’s about my kids, their teachers, and their classmates. And it’s about acknowledging that people in seemingly every demographic became mainstream technology users. And those new behaviors are not likely to change.

My mom, the reluctant app user

My mom moved into an assisted living facility in late 2019, just a few months before the pandemic forced her facility into a complete lockdown. For an entire year, from March of 2020 until March of 2021, she wasn’t allowed to leave the facility — aside from a few doctor visits and community-organized bus rides.

Technology helped her to combat loneliness and gave her a sense of connection with her loved ones.

She’d never used any video calling service before the pandemic. Now she uses FaceTime from her iPhone to video chat with family and friends — and often says, “This video helps me feel like you were here — I’ll feel it for the rest of the day.”

I regularly play Words with Friends with her. She also plays a lot more online cribbage with my brother, something she started a few years ago.

And perhaps the most important technology investment I made during the pandemic was the purchase of an Internet-connected digital picture frame. The frame stays on all day and cycles through images of her family members every 15 seconds. She enjoys watching the memories come and go on the screen — and says it makes her feel like we are present in her room every day in some small way.

Pain and opportunity

Despite our success with technology for my mom, these efforts were fraught with peril. For many years, my mom, a computer user, struggled with certain apps on her phone and computer. In group video calls, she couldn’t find basic controls like mute or unmute. Our attempts to play virtual games with her often failed, as she was unable to navigate between video calling and game applications. There are opportunities to design and develop streamlined and simplified software interfaces for seniors. Zoom and other video conferencing tools were originally designed for business people, not mainstream audiences.

Meanwhile, the digital photo frame did one thing exceptionally well: remote management. My mom doesn’t actively do anything with her picture frame — I control it from afar. My brothers and I upload images via a shared Google Photos photo album. More digital products designed for seniors and other tech-averse audiences should include features that allow family members to control the interface remotely.

Still, despite the challenges, her relationship with technology has forever been changed. Even after the pandemic, the smart picture frame will remain. The video chats will continue. And we’ll continue to play games with her to pass the time between visits and hugs.

Kids, schools, and connection through apps

For more than a calendar year, my two kids’ school was physically closed down. My daughter, who just turned 9, never set foot in a classroom as an 8-year-old. That’s an incredible amount of lost social development.

With our kids desperate for social connection, we leaned heavily on technology to help.

Early in the pandemic, we set up Facebook Messenger Kids accounts for both kids. The excitement of video chatting, reading messages, and sending silly drawings to friends isn’t the same as school recess, but it keeps them connected with classmates and friends.

My 12-year-old son has taken to online gaming. In the past, we were determined to limit his “screentime” and his gaming. During the pandemic, we’ve found ourselves occasionally encouraging him to do more of both as a means of engaging with his friends.

Meanwhile, like many others, our school went from being augmented by technology to being completely dependent on technology. Before the pandemic, our kids used school-issued iPads as a tool to do some app-based learning and digital projects. During the shutdown, everything was through the iPad. The kids used a collection of apps to have video calls with classmates, communicate with their teachers, and perform and manage their school work.

And we’re using parental versions of the same apps on our own devices to communicate with teachers and see the kids’ progress.

Pain and opportunity

Many of the apps designed for schools and school-age children come via legacy learning companies, often textbook publishers. These companies aren’t well versed in designing software. While the apps’ educational content is usually very good, the user experience is poor for kids and adults alike. And some of the communication tools lack basic features that you would expect. For example, one app allows a parent and teacher to send private messages — but there was no way for a teacher to send a message to two parents. (This made it more difficult for parents like us to co-manage our kids’ distance learning).

Still, my kids’ relationships with technology have changed — and it’s a good thing. While they were already curious technology explorers before the pandemic, they now know how to use technology to create more things, get more done, and stay connected with friends.

As for the schools, there’s no question in my mind that being forced into distance learning will open some eyes as to how apps can be used to improve how kids learn — along with creating new efficiencies for teachers, administration, and parents.

What does the post-pandemic opportunity look like?

As we emerge from the pandemic, we’ll still want digital experiences like those that we needed during the past year. We may not need them in the same way, but we may realize they are more convenient or better than the old way.

In product marketing terms, the global addressable market for many apps and software just exploded. It’s an opportunity — or many opportunities — for companies to create new experiences. With care. Because while the pandemic forced us into using some apps that weren’t very polished, we may not be as tolerant of bad UX in a post-pandemic world. Especially the not-so-technically-savvy audiences, such as seniors, children, and schools.

It’ll happen — companies will create more digital experiences, and we will seek them out because our habits have changed. We have forged new relationships with technology. We won’t unlearn what we learned.

There’s no going back.

Software is eating the world. And we have more appetite for it than ever.

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