I am afraid of the Machine. Expose me to banner ads or
anticipatory marketing and I am instantly reminded of the inexorable rise of the
android; hand me a pair of Google Glass and I am convinced that “RoboCop” was a
The 19th century saw the advent of radar, the assembly line, fiber optics and
plastic; this century we’ve created apps that tell you who in your neighborhood
would be willing to have sex with you.
Yet, loath though this frequent emailer and social media enthusiast is to lead a
life in thrall to algorithms and bots, I admit that having Scrabble on my iPhone
has improved my life immeasurably. Indeed, in my dotage, it’s entirely possible
that I’ll now look back on the accumulated years I’ve spent on subway platforms
and airport tarmacs as the good years, the salad years.
So, if Scrabble can light up the dark alleys of my time on earth, maybe other
apps can, too? The market research company Forrester Research predicted in 2011
that annual revenue from the purchase of apps would reach $38 billion in 2015, a
figure so large as to inspire curiosity in even the most techno-churlish.
I recently spent three weeks trying to improve my life through apps. First, I
diagnosed myself; I determined that I have bodily ills, household ills and
wardrobe ills. Then I started Googling.
Lo, my bodily ills. The cold weather has slowed my commitment to swimming and
walking; my current love handles give my mid-torso the silhouette of a rotary
telephone. So for $2.99 I bought Meal Snap: You photograph food and Meal Snap
coughs up a calorie count.
Maybe this will inject my snacking with accountability, I thought: taking
pictures of all my midafternoon snacks and late-night indulgences will turn my
liaisons with Mallomars into a war-crimes tribunal of eating.
It worked for a day or two. The bother of having to find my iPhone so I could
capture, say, the handful of cashews that I wanted to eat while watching TV at
night was a powerful corrective. But gradually, the idea of photo-documenting my
dietary intake struck me as abject, like Andy Warhol obsessing over his taxi
receipts or Howard Hughes hoarding bottles of his urine.
Moreover, I had perhaps naively hoped that my afternoon enablers — the people
who grace the world with baked goods — would balk at my taking pictures of their
wares before I ate them. But these people loved Meal Snap.
“Cool idea, bro,” a vendor at a muffin cart on Lower Broadway told me as I
snapped away; a vendor at the Bread Alone stand at the Union Square farmers’
market asked for my camera to take the picture himself, saying he had the better
vantage point. An ebullient, rawboned gentleman manning a coffee and doughnut
cart at the corner of Houston and Broadway also cheered me on; he said,
“Technology is so high today. Soon they will be able to tell you in your head to
go left, go right, go left.”
I asked him, “Is that the kind of future you want?” He said, “I don’t know. But
pictures of doughnuts are very nice.”
One day, while walking through Whole Foods on Houston Street, my friend Ryan
asked me if I ever photographed my snacks from unusual angles in order to try to
get a lower calorie count. Thrilled by the idea, I placed an apple crisp muffin
on the store’s floor, and was soon smiling at a notice on my iPhone reading “0
calories.” The jig was up.
I had much better luck with two apps devoted to exercise. I had three good
sessions with Learn Hip Hop Dance, a series of videos starring a highly charming
Samuel L. Jackson-type named Professor Lock who’s given to expressions like
“Indubitably, indubitably” and “Y’all stay in there like swimwear.”
You start with lessons like “Find the Beat” and “Shoulder Lean.” You ease into
segments like “Strobing,” “Bobbing,” “Ticking.” Then you explode into “Cat
Daddy,” “Smurf Dance,” “Sponge Bob,” “Watergate Dance.” I did my best to follow
along to these videos while standing in my gym clothes in the office I rent; I
was up in da club like Dilbert.
Even better for me — because it’s condensed, and because it’s pure routine
rather than Learn Hip Hop’s lesson-followed-by-routine — is the Johnson &
Johnson 7 Minute Workout. Here are seven heart-hammering, sweat-producing
minutes of push-ups and jumping jacks and other instruments of torture, somehow
made palatable by each exercise’s brevity (about 60 seconds) and recovery time
(about 5 seconds).
Though the app encourages you ultimately to do three circuits of seven-minute
workouts, I would point out that that would be a 21-minute workout, a kind of
false advertising tantamount to finding every copy of “War and Peace” and
crossing out the words “War and.”
My household ills take two forms. Most pressing are my apartment’s array of
funky door hinges and other forms of discombobulation. This brought me into
contact with what would be my favorite of the apps, TaskRabbit. Here are scores
of willing and able folk proffering various kinds of domestic and event-staffing
I typed in my household tasks, my location and a date; TaskRabbit showed me 12
mini-profiles of people with handyman skills. Their rates ranged from $38 to
$250 an hour. I chose Andy, the second least expensive ($50), who had a large
number of flattering customer reviews.
Warm and tall, Andy carried a knapsack of tools; He is possibly the handsomest
man who has ever been in my boyfriend’s and my apartment. Seconds after Andy
arrived, I remembered with some embarrassment that my request had featured the
sentence “I have water spurting out of my tub handles.” Andy, who is also an
actor (he came fresh from auditioning for an Irish Spring commercial),
methodically and quickly fixed four door hinges and a bureau drawer in an hour:
He confessed that he didn’t know how to fix the tub handles or our loose
bathroom tiles; but the next day, when TaskRabbit asked for a review, I wrote,
“This man has brought joy into our home.” TaskRabbit then asked, one through
ten, how likely I was to recommend the app to a friend; I said nine. Asked why I
chose nine, I wrote, “Ease. The trope of the hot handyman. The $15 initial
A week later Greg and I hired Andy again, to fix the sagging springs on our
dining room chairs. Slightly rattled by the prospect of beholding his good looks
again, I found myself cleaning the apartment before his arrival. An hour in, I
told Andy: “I see that you identify on your Twitter account as a Christian
actor. A Christian and a carpenter: That’s a heavy burden.” Andy responded, “I’m
I asked, “But have you considered growing your hair out and taking on a facial
expression of constant pain?” With mock anguish, Andy asked, “ ‘What have you
people done to me?’ ”
Two and a half hours later, I told Andy how great it was to find someone to do
small household tasks. I said, “In an ideal world, you’d be like Kato Kaelin and
live in our backyard.” Andy’s voice went all twangy: “ ‘We broke some stuff,
y’all!’ ” He smiled and confessed, “I don’t know why I did that with a Southern
Had we simply gotten lucky with Andy? A few days later, I went back onto
TaskRabbit and hired another rabbit, this one at $25 an hour, to dust a lot of
books and help clean a rug. Upon his arrival, I told Tanael, a friendly young
stand-up comic from Haiti, “I’m going to reveal my deepest, darkest, most
shameful secret to you.” Tanael’s eyes widened as he asked, “Am I ready for
this?” He then helped my boyfriend and me to move our wooden sleigh bed 12 feet
so that I could clean an 18-years-untouched hellpit of cat hair and abandoned
shoes thereunder. The next day I wrote a review for Tanael: “Tuh-NILE is
On the home front, I could also use some variation to the rotation of 15 or so
dishes that I make for dinner. So I subscribed to Plated, a weekly service that,
for about $12 a plate, sends you the ingredients and a recipe to make an entree.
On my first foray, I selected from 10 great-sounding dishes (some of them
developed with NYT Cooking) and chose roasted parsnips with beef Bolognese, and
carrot coriander soup topped with roasted, crunchy chickpeas.
When my food arrived in an ice pack-equipped cardboard box two days later, I
discovered I had been sent mustard chicken instead of the beef Bolognese. I
called Plated, and a friendly employee named Heather quickly emailed me a recipe
for the chicken, and credited my account $24. Then, some 30 minutes later, I
discovered I had been sent only one piece of chicken instead of two.
When I wrote the company about the missing chicken, and received an automated
response asking what I thought of Plated’s customer service, I screamed at my
computer. I wrote back that I loved Plated’s food but was confused about the
chicken oversight. “O, Plated. I don’t know what to do about you,” I wrote. “I
worry that your eye is on another customer — and that you sometimes whisper to
this other customer, ‘Extra chicken.’ ”
A few hours later, though, Heather sent me a lovely response. After I had
ordered several more meals, when I ultimately decided to terminate my
subscription, she wrote that she was sorry I was leaving: “The last thing I
would want you to think is that you’re just another number in the system because
that is not the case.”
I’ve always maintained that you can’t buy pants or shoes online, because you
need to try them on. So for my final app experience, I decided to try to buy a
pair of wool pants. Typing my vitals in to three fashion apps — Hugo Boss, Shop
It to Me, and Gilt Groupe — I soon had ordered six pairs of pants, all of them
The pants arrived in a flurry of cardboard boxes. I loved two of them, both from
Gilt: a pleated, slightly nappy wool-cashmere blend from Incotex ($129), and a
white and maroon striped pair of flannel-like flat fronts from Michael Bastian
($129). That evening, while trying these two pairs on, I told Greg: “Help me
decide which pair to keep. The correct answer is, ‘Maybe you should keep them
both.’ ” Greg surveilled the offerings and said, “Maybe you should keep them
both.” Cue bluebirds.
Meanwhile, I returned the other pants, all of which had fallen prey to two
forces: the lack of universal sizing and an online consumer’s inability to touch
the merchandise. The Shop It to Me pants, a lightweight herringbone wool from
Brooks Brothers ($248), were too tight. As were a pair of flat fronts from Tiger
of Sweden ($169); I wrote on Gilt’s website: “Tight as an embolism stocking.
You’d have to cut me out of them with scissors.”
I had an errand to run near the Hugo Boss store in SoHo, so I presented the box
of two Hugo pants to a helpful salesman named Jorge who said he’d send them back
for me. I told a smiley, gorgeous colleague of Jorge’s (think Lupita Nyong’o in
a gray man’s suit) that the pants weren’t woolly or unusual enough for me. “I
like them,” I said, “But their message is a little off. Their message is
‘Sometimes at Work They Ask Me to Change the Xerox Toner.’ But I’m trying to
say, ‘Free Liquor in the Faculty Lounge!’ ” Lupita enthused, “I love that! Love
that.” Three minutes later, as I left the store, she bade me goodbye with:
“O.K., lovey. You enjoy that, the free liquor in the room.”
My three weeks of app mania are behind me now. I’m left with a much-improved
apartment, an exercise regimen that I can perform anywhere, two pairs of
great-looking wool pants, and many, many iPhone photos of muffins. I am barraged
by emails daily from most of the apps I used; nothing makes me feel quite as
numb as a fashion app trying to interest me in its “sweater weather event.”
I used to be ticked off when the music service Pandora asked me, “Are you still
listening?” because it seemed like a thousand pounds of neediness from a source
I wasn’t expecting. But nothing rivals the irritation of being over 40 and
trying to fit into pants fashioned after drainpipes.
I’ve gone two steps forward and one back. In the end, I’m now more open to any
technology that will bring me into contact with good workers and good services;
but I’m more irritated than ever by emails that emerge from commerce’s
My story is bittersweet. I know I’ll never want to be told to go left, go right,
go left. But now I think pictures of doughnuts can be very nice.
Henry Alford is the author of “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing
That? A Modern Guide to Manners.” Circa Now appears monthly.
A version of this article appears in print on January 4, 2015, on page ST1 of
the New York edition with the headline: What Isn’t There an App for?.
The path for Internet start-ups used to be quite clear:
establish a presence on the Web first, then come up with a version of your
service for mobile devices.
Now, at a time when the mobile start-up Instagram can command $1 billion in a
sale to Facebook, some start-ups are asking: Who needs the Web?
Smartphones are everywhere now, allowing apps like Foursquare and Path to be
self-contained social worlds, existing almost entirely on mobile devices. It is
a major change from just a few years ago, underscoring how the momentum in the
tech world is shifting to mobile from computers.
In that context, the Instagram deal looks like something of a turning point, as
even the Web giant Facebook tries to get a better grasp on a market that
requires a rethinking of old rules.
“For decades, the center of computing has been the desktop, and software was
modeled after the experience of using a typewriter,” said Georg Petschnigg, a
former Microsoft employee who is one of the creators of Paper, a new sketchbook
app for the iPad. “But technology is now more intimate and pervasive than that.
We have it with us all the time, and we have to reimagine innovative new
interfaces and experiences around that.”
Venture capitalists are eager to get in on the mobile trend. According to the
research firm CB Insights, mobile apps and companies attracted 10 percent of the
total investment dollars from American venture capital firms in last year’s
fourth quarter, and 12 percent of deals were mobile-related, up from 7 or 8
percent in previous quarters.
Ben Lerer, manager of the venture capital firm Lerer Ventures, said he preferred
to back companies that were building services for mobile first and the Web
second, because “businesses that are thinking that way are planning for the
Mr. Lerer was one of the early investors in OMGPop, a New York company that was
close to shutting down until it had an overnight hit in Draw Something, a twist
on Pictionary for the iPhone. Last month, OMGPop was snapped up for $200 million
by the game company Zynga, which has been trying to reduce its dependence on
Facebook-based games like FarmVille.
Another hit game, Angry Birds from the Finnish company Rovio, started out on the
iPhone before migrating to computers and video game consoles — an unusual
trajectory in the game world.
Cellphones are also prompting a shift in how people want to share things online,
creating a market for apps that make instant sharing easy, said S. Shyam Sundar,
a director of the Media Effects Research Lab at Pennsylvania State University.
In other words, many people want to post a photograph of themselves right from a
sun-drenched beach in Bali, rather than waiting until they are back home to
upload all 50 pictures onto Facebook.
“People are living in the moment and they want to share in the moment,”
Professor Sundar said. “Mobile gives you that immediacy and convenience.”
Instagram, a social network focusing on just that kind of instant photo sharing,
does have a Web site — but it is essentially there just to encourage people to
download the company’s apps. It is one of several social networks that have
established themselves entirely on mobile. Another is Foursquare, which lets
users share their location with a select few friends and has attracted nearly 15
“Mobile-first is the direction that many social networks are headed,” said
Holger Luedorf, the company’s head of business development. If done right, he
said, such services start to feel “baked into” the phone itself.
Dave Morin, who was at Facebook early on and left to create Path, a social
network for mobile phones, said he realized that the world was headed for a
mobile-centric future in 2009, when the influential analyst Mary Meeker
published a report saying that more people would soon connect to the Internet on
mobile devices than on personal computers.
Path does not release user numbers, but its app appears to have traction,
particularly among people who have become disenchanted with Facebook. “Because
you take your smartphone with you everywhere, you can quickly and easily take a
photo or video, map your location or jot down a note or a thought,” Mr. Morin
Companies that start with a Web site then try to shrink it into an app face a
tough challenge. Screen space on mobile devices is at a premium. And to avoid
turning off users, designers and developers have to cut back on clutter and
streamline their services, avoiding slow load times and stuttering
Start-ups that put their resources into mobile from the beginning can skip some
of the hassles. “You’re freed from worrying about so many of the things that you
have to think about when it comes to Web development,” said Oliver Cameron, one
of the founders of Everyme, an app introduced Tuesday that analyzes a user’s
contacts and generates miniature social networks around people it thinks belong
Then there is the relative ease in finding an audience. Web sites and software
packages have trouble standing out in the crowd. But apps have a simple
distribution mechanism in app stores, which can immediately bring an app to a
customer’s attention. “In February we had close to 900,000 downloads,” said
Andreas Schobel, chief executive of Catch, a start-up in San Francisco that
makes a note-taking app. “How would we do that on the Web?”
Mobile apps tailored to work for specific devices like the iPhone also run
faster than Web sites, Mr. Schobel noted. “When you’re on the phone you need the
experience to be instantaneous,” he said. “You just can’t do that yet on the