11 May 2012

Is it really all about apps?

Somehow we have reached the point where downloadable apps are everywhere. There is now a very real expectation from mobile users that apps should be available as a matter of course from virtually all content and service providers, including databases, journals and news sources.

However in spite of their popularity, downloadable apps are not necessarily the best solution for accessing content on the move. Firstly they need to be continually updated, and secondly the sheer volume of apps which are available can often lead to app overload as the number of different apps you need to install on your device escalates. Arguably the reason why many apps are so popular and successful is not because the apps are particularly effective or innovative, but rather because the web sites and services in question are so poorly designed for mobile devices in the first instance. But what if you could deliver an app-like experience through your web browser?

Responsive Web Design helps to ensure that the layout of your site adapts to the viewing environment so that your site will also be optimised for mobile viewing on tablets and smartphones. Recently the FT has shown that there's an alternative approach which can work, and pulled its iPad and iPhone apps from Apple's iTunes store after it launched a new version of its website written in HTML5. Using a web browser-based app designed in HTML5 means that there is no need for mobile users to download device-specific apps, and speeds up browsing in a way that looks and feels the same across all platforms (Android, iOS and Windows). Publishers (the FT included) will no doubt prefer the idea that they are in complete control of access to their content rather than being dependent on the fee structures and distribution platforms of Apple and Google.

This piece in Technology Review offers an honest insight into the magazine's recent failed experiment with apps:
"We sold 353 subscriptions through the iPad. We never discovered how to avoid the necessity of designing both landscape and portrait versions of the magazine for the app. We wasted $124,000 on outsourced software development. We fought amongst ourselves, and people left the company. There was untold expense of spirit. I hated every moment of our experiment with apps, because it tried to impose something closed, old, and printlike on something open, new, and digital."
Digital content typically works better with a web-like feel and structure that supports linking to and from other content, but apps often don't offer this experience for users. HTML5 does not necessarily mean that apps will disappear today or tomorrow, but as responsive design matures users will realise that apps are often a needlessly long-winded solution to a more fundamental problem.


  1. Yes, it is sadly and it's going to get worse. I think in general companies will develop apps ahead of mobile friendly websites because apps allow service providers more control over access to their platforms, and IMHO control is everything. I'll be very happy to be proved wrong though Nice to see the FT and Technology Review withdrawing, but neither company are Facebook, or Apple. There'll also be big consumer demand for such walled gardens where you don't have to worry about phishing, viruses, trojans and all the other inconveniences of the real Internet I'd recommend, but I'm sure you've read it, Jonathan Zittrain's 'The future of the Internet and how to stop it'.

  2. Thanks for the comment David - I have not read Zittrain so will pick it up. It sounds interesting! I think you are right in that nothing significant will happen in the short-term, but I do think that responsive web design and development has become the hot topic these days, in the same way that accessibility was a few years ago for example. I do think that we will definitely see a shift in this context from news and media channels, but apps will probably stick around for the big players. When libraries start talking about creating library apps, I start getting worried though ;)

  3. I think it is important to remember that apps are not just simple replacements to website access.There are many types of apps and many of them are not connected to websites e.g. games,photo manipulation,productivity apps to mention a few. Also sometimes apps allow to interact with content in new ways or they rearrange content for discovery, like the Vincent Van Gogh app. HTML5 development is to be encouraged for mobile website interaction, but apps are fundamental for all other things!

    [on a different topic, I don't understand why I can never post here using my wordpress account,wondering if anyone else had the same issue...grrr :)]

  4. Thanks Giada, I certainly agree that some apps are different, that's why I didn't call my post 'the end of apps' :) But many are largely just alternative access points for mobile devices (I'm thinking of news sources, journals and databases in particular), and you end up installing hundreds of them on your phone. Also you can have a lot of interactivity now with HTML5 as well, it is just that it is delivered through your web browser rather than having to be separately downloadable.

    Sorry about the Wordpress issue - will look into it!