Some people have even claimed that the Web is dead. I don’t agree but first let’s get some historical perspective.
Everything old is new again
When did we start going ga-ga all over again for native applications (most written in Objective-C no less)? Hasn’t installing apps on devices been around forever (remember Palms, PocketPCs, Java ME)? Wasn’t it cast in stone that the shift to the Web for everything was inevitable, and contenders of this approach were merely playing for time?
Well, with numbers like these for the Apple App Store, there is a huge disruption of that mantra and the scale of previous device apps: 250,000+ available, 6,500,000,000+ downloads (as of Oct 20, 2010). Google is behind, but expect it to rise hugely in the future given the runaway success of Android.
What happened? In a word: iPhone.
Not the first smartphone, but it’s touch interface was revolutionary. However few people remember that the original plan was not to have an iPhone SDK (in 2007) and the proposed way of marketing applications was this. In a rarity, Steve Jobs actually backtracked and announced a native SDK for third party apps.
So then why are we consuming so many apps on our devices now?. Let’s examine a few points:
- Tight integration in the hardware is allowing use of those nice 3D graphics, sensors, gyros, compass, and GPS (something webapps are barely getting off the ground now).
- Portability of the device is always a plus (ie. Nintendo portables always outsell home consoles). It also demands that the app respond faster and be launchable easier.
- Visual appeal. Buttons, images, tabs, they all look nice, and respond quickly.
- Development of rich interfaces is easier. For all I love the Web, dealing with browser incompatibilities and CSS rendering issues is not fun.
All that is good and true, but don’t desktop apps on the Mac, Linux and Windows also access the hardware fully? Don’t some of them have nice UIs? What’s the catalyst for all this interest? The answer in my opinion is: convenience.
Yep, what users of apt-get have known for years, relatively easy installation of native applications via the Internet is very desirable. I think all of us might’ve moved to webapps for email, news, etc. because the administration and acquiring of desktop apps was just inconvenient (another good point would be feature creep, but that’s another post altogether).
Consider Windows and buying/downloading software, later installing, configuring: it ain’t pretty. It’s more convenient just to access a webpage, no dealing with configs or anything, at the cost of reduced expectations. If Microsoft and the rest of the packaged software industry had embraced Internet distribution we might be somewhere else now, but they did not, and thus a lot of PC software moved to the Web.
So now, you go click on a store, and you app download and install. Once you see it in action, you shouldn’t be surprised people like it, even when ceding control and maybe even freedom. Hopefully one day a desktop OS could have such an option.
The Web is dead. Long live the Web.
The Web remains a vital information resource, both of text and now of richer context like video, and that’s not going away anytime soon. Also, there are many millions of PCs out in the world that now exist for the sole purpose of Web browsing (consider all those machines with WinXP that are just not upgrading).
But will the notion that everything must run in a browser prevail? At this point, clearly not.
That said, there are concerns of bypassing the Web and walled gardens that shouldn’t be discarded hastily, but I think a new balance is emerging. The new (old) world will have extremely media rich apps delivered and coexisting with information (and webapps) via the Cloud.
A perfect example of this is the killer Flipboard application, that turns your social network and Internet feeds into a readable magazine. Where magazine apps have been nothing more than glorified versions of the interative CDROMs of the 90s, without the linking that made the Web what it is, Flipboard integrates the feeds and gives you a way to see Web content from the app. Brilliant.