If I had to guess, I'd say the last time there was genuine grassroots mania for "apps" as a general concept was probably around 2014, a last-gasp burst of energy that coincides with a boom of the "sharing economy" before it became clear the whole thing was just sparkling exploitation. For a certain kind of person, specifically people who are really deeply invested in having a personal favorite software company, this was a frustrating state of affairs. If you can't count the apps on each side, how can you win?
Then Twitter started its slow motion implosion, and Mastodon became the beneficiary of the exodus of users, and suddenly last month there was a chance for people to, I don't know, get real snotty about tab animations or something again. This ate up like a week of tech punditry, and lived rent-free in my head for a couple of days.
It took me a little while to figure out why I found this entire cycle so frustrating, other than just general weariness with the key players and the explicit "people who use Android are just inherently tasteless" attitude, until I read this post by game dev Liz Ryerson about GDC, and specifically the conference's Experimental Games Workshop session. Ryerson notes the ways that commercialization in indie games led to a proliferation of "one clever mechanic" platformers at EGW, and an emphasis on polish and respectability — what she calls "portfolio-core" — in service of a commercial ideology that pushed quirkier, more personal titles out:
there is a danger here where a handful of successful indie developers who can leap over this invisible standard of respectability are able to make the jump into the broader industry and a lot of others are expected not to commercialize their work that looks less 'expensive' or else face hostility and disinterest. this would in a way replicate the situation that the commercial indie boom came out of in the 2000's.
however there is also an (i'd argue) even bigger danger here: in a landscape where so many niche indie developers are making moves to sell their work, the kind of audience of children and teenagers that flocked to the flash games and free web games that drove the earlier indie boom will not be able to engage with this culture at large anymore because of its price tag. as such, they'll be instead sucked into the ecosystem of free-to-play games and 'UGC' platforms like Roblox owned by very large corporate entities. this could effectively destroy the influence and social power that games like Yume Nikki have acquired that have driven organic fan communities and hobbyist development, and replace them with a handful of different online ecosystems that are basically 'company towns' for the corporations who own them. and that's not a good recipe if you want to create a space that broadly advocates for the preservation and celebration of art as a whole.
It's worth noting that the blog post that kicked off the design conversation refers to a specific category of "enthusiast" apps. This doesn't seem to be an actual term in common use anywhere — searching for this provides no prior art, except in the vein of "apps for car enthusiasts" — and I suspect that it's largely used as a way of excluding the vast majority of software people actually use on mobile: cross-platform applications written by large corporations, which are largely identical across operating systems. And of course, there's plenty of shovelware in any storefront. So if you want to cast broad aspersions across a userbase, you have to artificially restrict what you're talking about in a vaguely authoritative way to make sure you can cherry-pick your examples effectively.
In many ways, this distinction parallels the distinction Ryerson is drawing, between the California ideology game devs that focus on polish and "finish your game" advice, and (to be frank) the weirdos, like Stephen "thecatamites" Gillmurphy or Michael Brough, designers infamous for creating great games that are "too ugly" to sell units. It's the idea that a piece of software is valuable primarily because it is a artifact that reminds you, when you use it, that you spent money to do so.
Of course, it's not clear that the current pace of high-definition, expansive scope in game development is sustainable, either: it requires grinding up huge amounts of human capital (including contract labor in developing countries) and wild degrees of investment, with no guarantee that the result will satisfy the investor class that funded it. And now you want to require every little trivial smartphone app have that level of detail? In this economy?
To be fair, I'm not the target audience for that argument. I write a lot of my own software. I like a lot of it, and some of it even sparks joy, but not I suspect in the way that the "enthusiast app" critics are trying to evoke. Sometimes it's an inside joke for an audience of one. Maybe I remember having a good time getting something to work, and it's satisfying to use it as a result. In some cases (and really, social media networks should be a prime example of this), the software is not the point so much as what it lets me read or listen to or post. Being a "good product" is not the sum total through which I view this experience.
(I would actually argue that I would rather have slightly worse products if it meant, for example, that I didn't live in a surveillance culture filled with smooth, frictionless, disposable objects headed to a landfill and/or the bottom of the rapidly rising oceans.)
Part of the reason that the California ideology is so corrosive is because it can dangle a reward in front of anything. Even now, when I work on silly projects for myself, I find myself writing elaborate README files or thinking about how to publish to a package manager — polish that software, and maybe it'll be a big hit in the marketplace, even though that's actually the last thing I would honestly want. I am trying to unlearn these urges, to think of the things I write as art or expression, and not as future payday. It's hard.
But right now we are watching software companies tear themselves apart in a series of weird hype spasms, from NFTs to chatbots to incredibly ugly VR environments. It's an incredible time to be alive. I can't imagine anything more depressing than to look at Twitter's period of upheaval, an ugly transition from the worldwide embodiment of context collapse to smaller, (potentially) healthier communities, and to immediately ask "but how can I turn this into a divisive, snide comment?" Maybe I'm just not enough of an enthusiast to understand.