App-pocalypse Now

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.

Frank I think that’s a good point regarding apps replacing desktop software, but that’s part of the problem. Very few developers are focusing on innovating around the dynamics of mobile applications. Everyone is focused on replacing desktop software with a small “mobilized” replacements.

User needs for mobile need to be the focus. If you think about some of the more used mobile application like Google Maps, it’s because they take advantage of a real need users have in the mobile space. Web-to-app or Desktop-to-app translations just don’t work very well. They work even less well with regards to games. That’s why Angry Birds originated on mobile rather than on the desktop.

I take exception to the utopian ideal of not knowing nor caring whether you are using a local app or something in the cloud. Data consumption caps force me to care and I also would like some control over what data an app shares with unknown parties under the hood.

There is also the need to use some apps when not connected, say a GPS mapping application to guide backcountry hikers.

Develop kindly.

Jeff, I’ve never agreed with you more. The route the industry is taking is despicable. We could be building a better web, one matching the experience you get in apps, but no, we’re doing this stupid thing again, with platform lock in and reduced feature sets and having to develop a gazillion variants (instead of one site with a bunch of fluid/responsive layouts).

Firefox OS sounds promising in this regard. I wish it all the best. Not holding my breath, but I do rather hope they make it.

Well said, sir, very well said! This is another space that’s ripe for disruption — and happen it shall.

Awesome rant! Could not agree more.

Want to second the comments on Firefox OS. Not thrilled about Mozilla’s foray into advertising, but cheap devices with “good enough” websites/HTML5 “apps” could start a fire underneath these stupid ecosystems.

Don’t confuse web apps (programs that happen to run inside your browser) with web sites.

The best way to use gmail or pages/keynote (or Office if MS ever makes it available) on a mobile device is with a mobile app, no doubt. Ditto for any other web app.

The apps that Jeff complains about in his post, however, are “you’re visiting our website from a mobile device, why don’t you download our app instead!” apps, which are a complete waste of the user’s time.

Suppose someone sends me a link, or I’m looking for something and I google and click on a search result. The resulting web site “helpfully” offers to take me away from the thing I wanted to look at to the App store. Which, if I download it, the resulting app will not be smart enough to take me to the link I was originally trying to get to. To hell with that.

Or suppose I want to use Ebay (just as an example of a highly interactive web site where I’m not just going to end up there because I clicked on a link). I downloaded that app back when I first got an Ipad, only to discover that it didn’t include support for seller features or advanced search features that I use just about every time I interact with Ebay. For all I know the ebay app may have gotten better since then, but having wasted my time once, I am disinclined to waste it a second time.

My phone is a dumb flip phone, so I cannot speak to how useful apps are compared to websites on a tiny screen. But on an Ipad, the web browser is far more useful than an app version of the website nearly 100% of the time.

The deplorable state of most web sites when it comes to being optimized for viewing on a mobile device is a whole nother topic, of course, but the solution to that problem is implementing proper adaptive site design, not trying to steer your visitors to a crappy app version of your site.

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Best part for me is that I use an iPhone 3, so most apps won’t even work for it anymore. So the question for me is “Is your app soooo valuable that I should leave a working, reliable environment just to be able to run it?” Hey, I’m a neo-luddite. :smile:

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I’ve been studying App development for Windows 8 and they actually are trying to get app developers to consider a lot of standards to help bridge the user experience gap.

I haven’t been a fan of Microsoft since I was a little kid playing on 3.1.Still looking at the various mobile OS designs, I have to side with the standards Microsoft is promoting to developers. However they can only enforce them so much.

Now preferences aside, basically one of two things could drastically change things.

  • First, someone builds a standard development language that can be
    interpreted or converted to run native on all the popular
  • Second, there are global design standards agreed upon
    as best practice across all devices to unify the user experience

At current both of these are unlikely. I know there are some app conversion applications available but none of them really create a native application. The second is even less likely as good design is considered a competitive advantage.

Still it took many years for a majority of websites to adopt best practice and there are still a ton of them that haven’t. The only advantage apps have over the web is the ability to connect to native functions that browsers lack access too.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that apps have the potential to overpower the web to some degree. However I don’t think that future is coming in the next couple years, maybe not even the next five.

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Discourse is open source; there have been some movements to make more responsive designs for it.

There is a good discussion on meta about the issue. I believe they serve up a responsive site for mobile browsers, but keep the desktop one pure for performance reasons. If you are going by viewing the source, it may be deceiving.

Webapps. Or at least apps powered using web technologies. is a great example: we can avoid fragmentation by using the same codebase for all apps (and possibly even the mobile website too).