Whither Apps?

What’s the big deal with apps over webpages?

Short History Lesson

In the day of the web, starting 20 years ago, say 1990, web pages were all the rage. By 2000 we had the (dot)com boom. Nobody was talking Apps then. We weren’t writing hundreds of thousands of apps for our PCs then. The concept of having a single program on the PC that could display hundreds of thousands of websites was the way things went. We could have had a PC app boom then.

Java – The promise of Apps for Everyone

In 1991, Sun inc tried to create the language of apps for our PCs with the Java language. Java was designed to be architecture independent so that it could run on any type of PC. At the time there were many hardware architectures rather than just two or three. Java is an interpreted language and so starting in 1995 by incorporating it into Netscape Navigator, Java was marketed for a time as a portable language for writing client side applications for the web. There were even Java based “Web Stations”, small computers running Java and a browser that could act as front ends for web sites and applications, but these never got any traction. Soon Java migrated to a more popular language for the back-end, servers. In the form of IBM WebShere, BEAsys WebLogic [now Oracle], and the Open Source Apache Tomcat environments are three popular examples of this movement of Java into the web server environment.

Why the Web Rather Than PC Mini-Apps?

Why was there no PC mini-app boom as there has been for smart phones? Probably because there was no single company that would benefit greatly from their adoption. If Microsoft, or AOL or another of the early players had made a bid to push small lightweight applications into the PC rather than pushing web pages, the result may have been different. AOL played into he hands of the future web, and in a sense caused it’s own demise, by adopting HTML and web sites as their platform. AOL failed once the internet gained momentum since the AOL walled garden was too expensive and other ISPs [Internet Service Providers] gained a foothold. It’s hard to justify $30/mo plus overcharges once there are folks providing unlimited time for $9.95 /mo to reach the same internet, indeed to reach the same AOL websites, which of course could be reached backwards through the internet as well as through the captive AOL dialup network.

Why Apps Now Rather than Websites?

I believe we have an application boom now rather than just an extension of websites because Apple and the Cellphone Providers are in control. Apple is making millions by taking a 30% cut on the sale of apps, even tho many of them are free. Millions of sales of apps for $3.99 makes Apple millions. You can’t skim millions from folks visiting websites on their phones. I guess this is the Apple Smart Phone Tax.

Consider the situation of Apple and the Apple Store if smart phones were web site based? There would be no App Store, but the google search engine. Apple would not be in control, could not refuse to sell your app, even if it were free, as they do now. The cell phone companies could not influence your experience. Apple could not so cavalierly refuse to put flash on your smart phone since so many websites, and secondary advertisers, rely on it. Instead of being so arrogant, Jobs and Apple would be working with Adobe for some standards to limit Flash for mobile to make the experience better.

Apps can be controlled in ways that websites cannot. Since you have to go to one place to get your applications, Apple and the cell phone carriers are in control of your experience, rather than you being in control.

Google has bought into his control model, even though they do not now take a tax as Apple does. There is not one Android app store. But we still have applications rather than websites on our android phones.

Technical Non-Reasons for Applications on Phones

Let’s look at some of the non-reasons to have applications on phones.

  • Websites are not formatted for phones and tablets. True, but that’s the result of the motion to applications rather than the reason. There have been a number of mobile web standards [@WikiPedia] starting as early as 1998. We do have website standards for mobile devices, just no wide industry adoption because they lose control if they adopt web standards rather than application models.
  • Use of websites cause more traffic than applications. Possibly true. One way to think about applications is that they are cached instances of graphics and local scripting which are downloaded once, usually via WiFi, and then can be used frequently when the use of a website would cause additional data traffic. But this assumes that the data traffic shortage is more than an artificial method of charging higher prices.
  • The Browser is too complicated. It is true that the web browser is often the most complicated and largest application on a PC. The modern browser, MS IE, or Firefox, is larger than other PC applications including word processors or spreadsheets. With the complexity of the scripting languages, context sensitive style sheets and the plugins such as Flash, PDF and others, the size of browsers is out of control, but PC memory and performance is growing very fast and can keep up. But all smart phones have browsers, so this is really an argument about mobile website standards rather than an argument about the size of a software application.

Almost All Apps Use Websites

We need to remember that almost all smart phone applications actually use websites to function. Very few applications are of any use without access to the network. Perhaps Angry Birds will function without the network, but it may actually check in to tell the company that you are playing the game, and to look for updates.

Rather than communicating with HTML, applications use JSON, XML or other serialization formats which may be lighter weight than HTML. Typically, though not always, the protocols do not involve image transfer. Although viewing photo galleries, album art and movies can hardly be said to be free of graphics.

Stove-Piping or Where are the Mashups?

Another problem with applications is the problem of stove-piping. This is the problem of many different, but similar services that are not integrated. There are many music sites, many photo sites, several – although hardly many – social sites, and in the application model, each site has its own application. This fragments the community. If for example, you want to review recent photos and postings from your friends, you need to visit several different sites – facebook, flicker, photobucket, picasa, etc. Windows Phone 7 has provided a point of integration for the applications to show photos in one place on the phone, but few if any of these services have bought into the integrated services. I believe that this approach is bound to fail. The phone service must allow the user to integrate the services by pointing the phone at these services directly, or third parties will need to do for phones what Mashups did for the web.

A mashup site is a site that integrates two or more web services into one experience which is more useful than either separately. Common mashups integrate mapping services – which google provides as an API – with another service. I’m sure that many mashup applications have appeared. It would seem that each of the, for example, photo sites has little incentive to provide an easy way for their content to be mashed together with other sites since this would mean removing the branding and changing the experience. There is a brand recognition war going on which reduces the optimal user experience.

What the Other Side Wants

The cell phone companies want the high profits that come with expensive data plans. They lost their high profits when dialup went to $9.95/mo. They lost again when broadband went to about $39.95/mo or less.

They are not about to lose their high profits on cell phones and they are in control. There are no contenders for new cell phone services. The difficulty in building a network or buying into the networks that are out there make this impossible. We have the same situation we had with Standard Oil or ATT&T [before the breakup]. We have one or a few monopolies controlling a resource in a monopolistic way, controlling prices, access and increasingly, content. For a perspective on this read “The Master Switch” by Tim Wu [@Amazon ].

Unlimited data plans are going or are gone. With the purchase of T-Mobile by ATT&T and the Comcast purchase of NBC, our internet is increasingly in the control of fewer and fewer hands rather than more. The profits are in the data plans for smart phones. So that’s where the artificial scarcity in bandwidth is and that’s where the high prices are. There are more profits if they charge high prices for every one separately – since everyone has a phone – instead of the family – there is only one broadband link per home.

What Can We Do?

Format for the Mobile Screens. As companies who want to reach mobile users, move toward open standards. Make your websites mobile aware so that using the browser on a phone or tablet will work nicely. Your websites can tell which device is attaching, and can know how big that screen is, so format a site for that screen.

Build Mashup Applications. As a developer of applications, build mashup applications that can be reconfigured by the user to point to more different places to integrate those places. The more you put in control of the user, the less control Apple, and the other content providers have. Photo mashup apps, music mashups.

Don’t buy in. As a consumer, don’t buy into the cellphone network artificial data scarcity. Buy phones with WiFi and use it – Carefully. Know about Firesheep and other nasty security issues. Purchase and use tablets and other devices that do not have cell phone data plans. WiFi bandwidth is not controlled, yet. So use it, rather than data plans.

– w