Yo, developers could learn something from the app everyone's talking about

Shane Schick

We talk about downloads, we talk about installs, but I, for one, never hear about people going "shopping for apps" in an app store. That may soon change for the iOS crowd. 

It's only two letters and one syllable, and yet a mobile app called Yo has already generated more lengthy discussions online than what most developers will ever experience in their entire careers.

The subject of stories in Time magazine, the Financial Times and a slew of other publications, Yo has become the poster child for those who argue we are in the midst of a technology market bubble akin to what happened with dot-com firms in the early 2000s. This can be blamed on both the app's simplicity--all it basically does is send an eponymous message via push notification to other smartphones--and the fact it has already attracted $1 million in financing for its developer, Or Arbel.

As he explained in an interview with Think Progress, Arbel suggested that what may seem like limited use cases for Yo are largely an illusion:

So how do you convince investors that there is money to be made in the Yo-delivery business? Arbel is working on developing an API that will allow him to "partner with brands." In our Yo-enhanced future you would get Yos from "things that interest you." When the Gap has a sale, for example, it would send you a Yo. When your friend's plane lands, Delta will send you a Yo. Arbel is particularly excited about the prospect of getting a Yo into Starbucks. When your order is ready, Starbucks could send you a Yo.

But forget all that for a moment. Focus instead on Arbel's initial approach to the market, and how it contrasts with so many other indie developers. There wasn't an enormous product lifecycle; he claims Yo was created in about eight hours. There wasn't a highly sophisticated set of features and functionality, even though the success of more "advanced" messaging apps like WhatsUp and SnapChat have suggested that's the only route to developer stardom. Where so many emerging apps seem to depend on gathering increasingly large amount of personal information from their users, Yo needs almost nothing to continue growing.

Yes, Yo may be so easy to use as to seem redundant, but I argue it does just enough to tap into a rich feature set available to any developer: the human imagination. Arbel may be ridiculed for suggesting Yo offers "context-based communication," but that just means it's human imagination that's doing the work, and the app is merely a useful conduit. "Yo" can mean "I've arrived." It could also mean, "I agree," or "Get ready," "I'm done" or a host of other things. Just as we have full-length conversations in person that have been replicated by more traditional messaging apps, Yo provides a way to electronically convey the more subtle, near-telepathic conversations that are based on a shared understanding of circumstances. 

Instead of bending over backwards to create entire worlds within an app or mobile game, maybe indie developers should adopt a similar approach: harnessing more of what's already happening in the world around them, and making it ultra-fast to digitize the experience. At its core, the word "Yo" is a way of suggesting recognition of some kind between two people, and maybe implied agreement. This app is already showing how mobile technology can take that kind of relationship farther than what we ever thought possible.--Shane