App-pocalypse Now

‘Apps’ are just a reinvention of ordinary applications, and carry the same problems you describe nicely here. Websites ‘apps’ are just the same. I see no distinction here. The underlying problem is the very notion of ‘applications’. It’s a useful computing concept, but not a useful human concept.

To quote Don Norman from “The Invisible Computer: why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution.” (1999)

Applications: what a terrible term. What a terrible concept. Applications have little to do with the tasks that people are attempting to accomplish. Look. We don’t do word processing; we write letters, or memos, or reports, or notes to ourselves.

Activity-Based Computing, which has been researched since the 80s at Xerox PARC, might be able to tackle the core problem:

It’s curious Joshua Ochs used the example of the native Facebook app, since that specific app was on my mind when I saw this article – I’d uninstalled it earlier today, in fact, and I thought it was the very model of a stupid app that does the same thing as the web site, only worse. It was such a resource hog that it was pre-empting telephone calls while automatically syncing in the background. And for all that trouble, it was faster to use my smartphone’s browser.

Luckily there are still apps that are truly free. Free apps with no advertisements, no in-app purchases, no cross-selling, not branded, and fully functional (or as fully as the developer intended).

This paradigm called “freeware” still exists. It’s good to know that there are still people who just build something for fun or out of interest, make it work good, and release it for absolutely free. That’s what a free app is supposed to be: free.

I detest apps that pretend to be free. Especially games. Oooh, games. In-app purchases there is just fancy wording for “pay to win”, or i.o.w. cheating. In some games however, it’s not pay to cheat, it’s just pay to play. Some games are just unplayable without those pesky in-app purchases. See the new Dungeons & Dragons games for Android. Uhhhgg.

Where did the time go that apps are simply accompanied by a BLOODY TRIAL? (or in the case of a game, a BLOODY DEMO). Noone will think badly of your app/game if it is a trial/demo and this is clearly communicated.

Costly add-ons then?.. Hm, not sure. Well, as long as the app by itself is vaguely usable, I suppose folks might appreciate that and buy an addon or two, even if just out of appreciation. But here again, if the app without addons is useless, the app is useless.

Why don’t you have any social buttons to note the articles, jeff?
i would like to pin this interesting article in my g+

I tried to close the WebMD popup at least three times before I started reading. hmph.

Sounds like a win-win for developers. More platforms = more development time = more jobs. And if HTML5 turns out to be way forward everything will have to be RE-built on that.

As far as paying for apps goes, I’m really curious about the Evernote business model. They seem to make all their profit from a tiny percentage of customers that pay for an enhanced version - works out great for the millions of freeloaders like me.

And you forgot BlackBerry. LOL.

Since the app ecosystem is generally closed, why aren’t apps available as Shareware, with 30/45/60 day trials, or with no-questions-asked refunds within 48 hours of buying?

What you said about coffee-vs apps is spot on. I’ve bought some totally rubbish apps and now it’s a hard sell to get me to buy any. Competing apps in a field (e.g. PDF marking up on iPad)? I can’t try before I buy, so I haven’t bought…

I think a big part of the issue is discovery and how the web browser is “ghetto-ized” from the rest of the computing platform. Web is a great dynamically generated on-demand remote runtime. But using the web shouldn’t mean firing up a browser, typing in a url, or clicking on a favorite or switching tabs. A web view should exist in the same context as all other runtimes. Users shouldn’t care that they are viewing app or a web page.

Indeed, I agree with you having one app to do a functionality of many, but it is nowadays harder to find.

Back in the day when I used windows (as in desktop), I had MPC, GOM player, and 3 other players i don’t even remember anymore, to play multimedia (as in videos and DVDs), using winAmp, media player, and sometimes even VLC to play music files, it was fragmented process, and creates confusion sometimes (and RAM issues!).

After a while, desktop software started to change, they started to offer all-in-one suites, one media player for all your needs, listen to music, once you want to switch and watch a movie click a button and do so! yet they were bloatware, huge softwares just to do simple tasks and often very slow, and then came out VLC, it did just what i needed for All-in-one software, lightweight and simple to use, although it had (still has in my opinion) terrible UI for organising your media, it was the most elegant and sufficient solution at the time.

Mobile platforms has yet to adapt to this technique, due to most of app developers either being too greedy, or ignorant to do a game changer.

Take for example Bookmarking/“read-it-later” apps, I have noticed that the app developers of this category (competitors) are competing the “wrong way”, they pick a feature that their competitor doesn’t have and implement it, now since most of these apps are free, they offer in-app purchases, and they make that significant very important feature not free, don’t get me wrong, I write apps and software too, I am not saying I won’t drop a dime for that feature to make my life easy, the problem here is that they are competing on features, not the product quality itself, so if I find something I need in this app, I won’t find the other feature I need on it, instead I find it on the competitor software, and there it goes, an endless loop of missing features rendering an “incomplete” piece of software for a long time (at least until they update the software as a full pack of the most needed features instead of keeping on kids play).

So this is it, its true, the app stores are full of junk, most of them are useless and probably no one will download them, but this is not the problem, the problem is in the fragmented software, if you need something on your mobile, you will need to install 30 apps to reach the result you want, and this is caused (as stated above) by the market not being mature enough, or at least the developers are ignorant or too selfish to take on the next level, develop high quality full featured all-in-one software for your daily needs.

Just a technical note. Ledge Finder has a $2.99 upgrade that will display a spreadsheet that calculate the intensity of your injury should you choose a particular ledge. It automatically displays nearby emergency wards too. The Pro version of the product, also $2.99, has a proprietary “mortuaries near you” feature that replaces the emergency ward display if the app determines the ledge is high enough to warrant that. Be forewarned that the Next Of Kin notifier in-app purchase is now a separate app of its own.

Did anyone else want to reflexively close the popup in that image as soon as they saw it?

One other thing that annoys me from the applosion is all the stupid names people are coming up with for their apps.

I believe FirefoxOS to be on the right track with this: merging web and apps altogether. And this is actually what the PC is becoming with Chrome Apps and Firefox Apps. I don’t mean to say we’re there, but we’re on the way.

I’m all in of the redundancy of having an app display what can be accessed via the web in mobile format (basically running the “app” on the server) but what would a better answer be for functions which you may want to access when you are not connected to the internet?

At Chopstick Software, we’ve always focused on the most important question “Why the hell are we building an app in the first place?”. There are literally tons of apps in the all the different app market places. What could we do differently?

We decided to focus exclusively on a single device, the Kindle Fire. In this way we could ensure that our apps actually worked. After reading countless reviews of 100s of picture related apps, all of which were some variant of “it doesn’t work at all” it was obvious that quality of mobile applications is a big problem. The other problem that gets largely ignored is that phone and tablet form factors allow for different kinds of applications.

Our first app FireFrame - Digital Picture Frame focused on leveraging the Kindle as a second screen on your desk. People can’t read on their Kindles all the time so why not use it to display your family photos while it’s charging. People take tablets with them on trips or vacation so features that allowed quickly downloading all your photos from all the online services were important. People also don’t expect the kitchen sync with mobile apps nor do they want to spend any time being “trained” in how to use the app.

Our next app was quite a bit different. Kindle Fire users love to read… so what kind of applications would appeal to them. We created something based on the Message in a Bottle concept that allowed Kindle users to toss virtual bottles to other users of the Kindle Fire. The app leveraged game circle so they didn’t have to go create YET another profile or login. Both apps get pretty good reviews.

The tricky part in the application space is how do users tell the good from the bad? We don’t do anything untoward with your personal information. We leverage the Amazon AD API so we don’t believe our partners will do anything either. How do Kindle Fire or other Android users know that our apps are safe while others may not be? People don’t trust the review system (even though we don’t game it and get good reviews). We focus on building trust with our users by putting out good apps.

As app marketplaces mature, we fully expect new brands to emerge that are “trusted” by consumers. These will very likely not be the traditional brands we associate today. Building an app solely as an extension of a website probably isn’t good enough for most users as they could just go to the website. Applications need to focus on need. For example, McDonald’s might get me to download their app if it allowed me to more efficiently order while waiting in line or if it showed the progress of my order. They also might get me to download their app if it allowed me to track the calories consumed by their food or gave kids digital toys with their happy meal.

It’s very early in the mobile application space. It’s very much like the tag with HTML where by it will take a while before organizations learn the appropriate social norms for mobile.

The part with “four radically different mobile platforms” is not correct. If you list iOS and Android, it should be only 2. Tablet version is well integrated and frequently can be achieved only by adding new layout files, dimensions, etc. (roughly equivalent to use media queries and fluid layout in web). The classes containing the business logic are shared for phone / tablet - in Android as well as iOS. The app published to Google Play or App store is also the same for phone and tablet.

I could not agree more, the app-ification of everything is gone out control, 99% of all apps are just glorified browsers.

“One advantage of the Windows Phone app store is that developers can offer a trial experience. The purpose is to give the user an opportunity to try your app before they commit to buying it.”

That’s basically what Google Play also do but few people realize it. On Google Play you can buy an app/game and then have 15 minutes to “try it out” with all the features enabled; if you don’t like it then you can ask to be reimbursed.

However, I think this doesn’t work well for developers. I am an app developer myself and IMO the “try before you buy” only works for apps/games that require the user to spend a substantial amount of time using/playing through them. To me, most mobile games are for quick consumption, like a pop drink: you pay $1-$3 for it and consume it in the next few minutes. There are exceptions of course.

The reason why “there is an app for everything” is the paradigm shift created by Apple: you don’t access the file system to open different file types in different apps; instead, you “share” data with other apps that provide the required functionality. This more “biological” approach makes sense to me but ultimately it’s a matter of choice (at least on Android, the more fragmented platform of the two major ones). And I don’t this this is necessarily bad.

What is bad however IMO, there is a market for a lot of the crap out there and this is why there is no negative selection for bad apps. Most Android users simply refuse to pay upfront for a game and continue to naively believe that some things are free. Ad annoyances notwithstanding, nothing is really free as developers must get paid and corporations must turn a profit: eventually you have to pay to move forward in a game, or to add important functionality to an app. If you don’t, if you can really finish a “free” game without making an in-app purchase then you can bet the developer who created it has another source of revenue and the “bread on the table and gas in the tank” are not paid for with revenue from that particular game.

Some thoughts in response to reading both the article and some of the comments…

First, the opening images and dialogue about ads is entertaining. However, I think it is also a distraction from the overall point of the article. Marketing is not unique to apps. As the screenshots show, the web is what has enabled the marketing. If we can assume that marketers will both adapt to the dominant ecosystem and ruthlessly pursue our attention, then it becomes irrelevant as a point of comparison.

Second, it is clear that mobile apps are quite different from web apps. There are good reasons to go native on mobile given current technology constraints. Yes, we humans will misunderstand and abuse those reasons as we have in the past with websites, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great reasons for both web and mobile specific features/experiences. As a specific example, see Benedict Evans’ four points about why smartphone apps are unique in the context of ‘Whatsapp and $19bn’

  • Smartphone apps can access your address book, bypassing the need to rebuild your social graph on a new service
  • They can access your photo library, where uploading photos to different websites is a pain
  • They can use push notifications instead of relying on emails and on people bothering to check multiple websites
  • Crucially, they all get an icon on the home screen.

Third, just as use of the web quickly moved to a single input field (search bar same as url bar) … desktop and mobile phones have done the same. No need to organize your apps … on iOS it’s swipe down (search) and type a few characters. And remember, that’s when we want to open something manually. With appropriate use of notifications its … see, tap, boom. This is a far superior experience to what a web browser currently enables on a mobile device.

Last … some questions this discussion has me thinking about. Why do we need to pit mobile apps against the web? At the end of the day, if they are both appropriate ecosystems for delivering user-valued products then why can’t they co-exist? How would showing both suggested apps and web destinations (in addition to installed apps) via smartphone search change accessibility/discoverability concerns? If that ubiquitously happened across device platforms … would web tech become preferred approach for app development?

I firmly believe that there is a reason to build native iOS and Android apps. An app, built directly on top of the operating system, is the only way to leverage the full performance of the device.

That said, only a fraction of the apps out there actually need this kind of performance. If you’re building a virtual recording studio that has instruments and audio effects and recording – you need a native app. If you’re trying to find the nearest Wal-Mart – you probably don’t.

The problem is that “app” is the new “web site”. The same way everyone ran to build a web site in the 90s, now everyone is running to build an app. The difference is that web sites replaced brochures and ads, something every business uses. Apps replace desktop software, something only high technology companies produce.