A couple of days ago, I had an interesting dicussion on Twitter with Dutch media guru @erwblo. He noticed a trend at SxSW, where all exciting new developments seemed to be centered around apps. I tried to argue that apps are “evil”, but found that I needed a lot more than 140 characters to explain myself. Hence this post.
Right now, there’s a war raging. Apple, Google, RIM, Microsoft and others are caught up in a bitter fight over supremacy on the mobile internet. And the stakes are high. The web is about to go mobile. Smartphone sales are up, and dumbphones are getting smarter. Tablets are replacing part of the laptop market, and will soon represent a big slice of overall internet consumption.
Erwin pointed out that apps are simply the best way to view the web on mobile devices. This is true in the sense that most smartphone apps have a user interface that works well on smaller screens, and with touch input. But apps limit content to the devices they’re available for. There’s no official BBC News app for Android for instance. This makes the aforementioned war very relevant.
Apps are the new browsers
For years, web designers have complained about relatively minute differences in the way web content is displayed in different web browsers. On the mobile web as it currently is, every major content outlet has it’s own browser, its app. And most have an app for only one or two of the competing mobile operating systems. So where a little extra padding here and there is considered a big deal on the regular web, on the mobile web, content is entirely unavailable on some devices.
What if Apple would win?
Let’s theorize what would happen if Apple’s iOS ecosystem defeats its rivals and becomes the dominant mobile ecosystem. What if Android succombs to its fragmentation issues? WebOS and BADA are probably too late to the party already. Let’s say RIM bails out and the Nokia/Microsoft deal doesn’t “save” either party? We’d be left with a single company controlling the mobile internet. Publishers would simply absolutely need to be in the app store. Apple’s quirky App Store rules would rule supreme.
Venus Fly Trap
I’m using Apple as an example here of course. If Microsoft or Google were to win, in the sense that no other system would survive, that would probably be equally bad. But unlike Google, with it’s focus on open source and open standards, Apple seems to be working very cleverly towards world domination. Once you’ve got your first iPhone, it’s very hard to leave iOS. A couple of months into using Cupertino’s slick device, it’ll likely be full of paids apps, music, video and magazine subscriptions. All of which Apple is careful to tie to iOS.
The web should be about freedom
What has always fascinated me about the internet is that is enables everyone to be a publisher. First with “homepages”, then weblogs, YouTube and tons of other Web 2.0 tools. And everyone publishes to everyone else. Whether you write a short Amazon product review or a lenthy blog post like this one, everyone can read it. This is what made the web great, and it’s something we need to be very careful about not losing.
One may argue that this is still the case with current smartphones, since all of them come with a capable browser. While this is true, reading web pages on an iPhone screen is cumbersome at best. Even if the website offers a “mobile” version, the experience is usually subpar. Apps make sense from a user experience point of view, but we need to be careful about swapping generic browsers for proprietary apps. Apple has recently restricted access to its hardware for web apps (browser-based, cross-platform applications) packaged as “real” apps. These apps are essentially second class citizens on iOS, and Apple seems quite fine with that. Well-made apps lure in more users. More users means more market share, which means more apps.
I find it suprising that many of the people that helped make the web great are now avid Apple advocates. My main reason for not getting an iPhone was that Android offered a more open ecosystem, and competition. I really hope Windows Phone 7 becomes a success too. As long as this was rages on, us customers will probably be fine. But god forbid it’s actually ever won.