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Are Apps a Passing Phase?

At NetHui last week one of the most interesting sessions was “Is there an app for that?”. The issue was that while apps can be easy to use, they are little walled gardens within an app store which is another level of walled garden.

The Apple app store or Google play makes it easy to find apps, but it also means that you’re limited to apps that your environment’s corporate overlords approve and in Apple’s case, charge to include. On Android, it’s easy to change a setting so you can install unapproved apps, but that opens you up to vast amounts of malware. (I once saw a live demo where a guy took an Android game, opened up the executable, added a remote access trojan, put it back together as a game with the same name with FREE! added, and then pointed a camera at his phone, installed the hacked game and showed us the remote control features, all in under an hour. Ouch!)

There was a lot of discussion of apps vs. web sites. Even without the security issues, apps are usually little walled gardens of their own, unable or unwilling to talk to anything else. But on a web site, even one with fancy dynamic ajax features, the user never needs to be more than a click (or tap) away from any other web site with a URL. But on current mobile devices, there’s a lot of stuff that an app can do that a web site can do poorly or not at all, particularly with input devices like the GPS and accelerometers.

One person who worked for the NZ government said the government had about 400 web sites. The discussion quickly went to the difference between 400 web sites, which should be possible to manage as a consistent group that users would see as a combined whole, compared to 400 apps which would be ridiculous.

The conversation returned to web sites vs. apps, with people noting that there’s a lot of stuff you can do now that you couldn’t before, such as the video integrated into HTML 5. I piped up and said this strikes me as another example of the circle of computer reincarnation. In my first version of Internet for Dummies in 1993, the first half of the book was about how to get connected, and the second half was basically about the apps you used for Internet services, a mail program, Telnet, FTP, gopher, archie (the gopher index), WAIS, and one chapter about this funky web thing. At the time I thought that WAIS, which provided full text search weas the cool coming thing, I was wrong about WAIS, but right about full text search. What I missed was that most of those other services would get absorbed into the web, and your browser would be the one stop app that did them all. Some took longer than others but nearly all eventually got webified, some within a year or two, with mail taking a decade for web mail to be the dominant mail interface.

So it seems to me that browsers on mobile devices are evolving as fast as they did on desktops, and mobile browsers are likely to absorb nearly everything that apps do now, while keeping the good stuff about the web, like the site to site linking, and no need to register sites in an app store. Gee, said one of the leaders at the end, I feel a lot better about the mobile future now.

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker

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