The biggest, most heated, debate-sparking topic of 2012? The clash of web vs app, no doubt. Many articles and blog posts before me have talked about the epic battle between the web and its fat client opponent. Facebook hailed the app approach, others have dissected and diffused every complaint Facebook made. It wasn't until I read Christian Heilmann's latest article on web standards that I started to worry though.
Up until a couple of months ago I didn't pay too much attention to the vast world of apps. I own an old S500i mobile phone and I was a loyal Windows 7 user, so the whole app store, micro-payment hype was happily passing me by. There was always this lingering feeling that I might be missing out on something major, but I didn't really feel the need to explore as apps weren't going to solve any of my pressing problems.
Now that Windows 8 is here (which comes with its own app store), I am pretty confident that I really didn't miss out on much. I am fully aware that the Windows Store is currently understocked and missing quite a few "essential" apps, though I haven't been able to find one article that could tell me exactly which crucial apps I'm actually missing out on. Starbucks, Twitter, Facebook ... seriously?
The way I see it, the whole app world has a couple of very tough battles to fight before it can actually settle as a serious opponent for the web. First of all it faces the same problems as RSS and various social media sites are experiencing. Because they are all about micro and single-focus, over time these services become almost impossible to maintain for a single person. Popularity is actually the reason why many of these services are struggling to survive. RSS is nice if you have 10 sites to follow, but it becomes counterproductive when you have hundreds. The same goes for Twitter and Facebook. It's easy to follow and befriend, but after a while you start missing the vital information while semi-spam further invades your update stream. This goes also for apps. Loyalty towards apps is often nonexistent and many apps are only used once. This creates clutter and the past taught us that built up clutter is almost impossible to get rid off.
This has a lot to do with the very limited reach of most apps. Single-task, single-focus is fine because mobile is still relatively "new", but as our phones grow stronger and faster people will begin to expect more and more from them. Apps are not built to be extended. Each app lives in its own world and fails to become a part of a bigger whole, making it hard to do anything more complex than a few simple tasks.
Content and Singular Tasks... But Never Fully-Fledged Programs
Looking at the available apps in the Windows Store, I was surprised by what I found there. Many apps are nothing more than wrapped content. An app like iCookBook offers a few recipes and that's it. Even as a website it would make a poor impression, where I used to believe (at least that's what people told me) that apps provided added value. Another telling example, written with a entirely serious tone of voice:
quote The feature list is at least impressive, as the Amazon for Windows 8 app allows you to quickly search for products, read product descriptions and reviews, add products to the shopping car or to the wish list and even purchase products. unquote
A better example still is that of national radio stations. Just about every station in Belgium released a Windows 8 app. All these apps do exactly the same thing: they stream their own list of programs, basically offering you one single radio channel (and ads/branding of course). Even oldskool radio hardware does a better job than that. Then there are the aggregate radio apps, offering you a selection of radio streams from around the world. Same crap, but at least they go to the trouble of offering you more content.
But what about internet streams, right? Do I need a separate app for them too? What I want is an app where I can collect the streams that I like and/or care for. Mind, that would be a bare minimum, what I really want is a decent media player that plays music, streams, video and the like. You know, like on a regular desktop machine. Maybe I haven't looked hard enough, but the fact that all these other apps exist seem to support my statement that currently there is a serious lack of quality software in these app stores. Instead you get micro-functionality and content for a small price (still way to much to consider it a micro-payment) without any sort of platform where all these services could cooperate together.
Apps Have Their Place
Apps are great for small innovations, games (maybe), for micro-UX and for replacing campaign sites. For now they've enjoyed reasonable popularity because our hardware is incapable of anything more. But once we start to expect more of our phones and tablets, the clutter of apps will start to crack and fail to engage us on a long-time basis.
I don't want to download an entire app just to get a book of pre-set recipes, I want a book where I can collect recipes from various other sources. If at all possible I want to link those recipes to my collection of online stores so I can instantly swap the necessary ingredients of a recipe to my shopping list. In the same way I don't want a single radio stream, I want a place to collect the different streams I like. And if it can't be directly integrated in a player, I want to be able to connect my player to my collection of streams so they can work together. That way you could benefit of all the work that went into the UX of a single task without having to suffer to poor functionality of each individual app.
The web doesn't need to fear apps (yet). The web is meant for long-time, searchable content and services. That's why it worries me when someone like Heilmann proposes to try and beat apps head-on. The web doesn't need to shift its focus, instead it should get better at what it does best. I do agree with him that we need better authoring tools, but not to build futile and hype-of-the-moment type of websites.
Apps have quite a long way to go before they become close to being a real threat to web content and currently they lack an underlying platform to make that happen. Once the app hype dies, the web will have other things to worry about, so unless we focus on our core business we'll end up straying from our path. Only then will the web be in real trouble.