December 8th, 2011

Apps vs. The web: A big debate

Originally published on Memeburn.

Not long ago, the ‘apps vs. the web’ debate only really made sense in the context of mobile. Now, at the initiative of companies like Apple, the issue is spreading not just to tablet computers, but to the desktop as well. Apple’s App Store has ported the concept of low cost or even free Apps from the mobile arena to the desktop, and brought with it the same controversies for both users and developers.

Apps vs. Mobile Websites - User Experience

What is an App?

The term ‘App’ obviously has a fairly broad definition. The kinds of apps that are most pertinent to this debate however, are the ones that make heavy use of web services and APIs. An App that helps you resize photos on your mobile or desktop therefore has little relevance to this debate, since it makes complete sense as an ‘offline’ app.

An app then, for the purposes of this discussion, is a piece of software that runs locally (at least partly) but makes heavy use of web services and web APIs for its functionality and value.

What is the web?

Okay – I know we all know pretty much what the web is, but it is important to focus on a couple of key features so we know what the defining characteristics are. The web was designed/intended to be an interconnected network of information. Hyperlinks are the fundamental glue of the web, linking everything together, whether it is text based information, video, image, geo-location data – whatever.

Not only is everything linked together, but all the data on the web is ideally ‘marked up’, with HTML. This means that every bit of content on a web page is to a certain extent described semantically. This helps both humans and software (like search engines) understand what different bits of a web page are. Text content is held within HTML text tags (p, h1, etc.), images within image tags (img) and now with HTML5, even common layout items will hopefully become standard (e.g. header). This is why full Flash websites are disliked by so many web developers – they usually negate this fundamental aspect of the web, packaging all content within an effectively opaque box, with no helpful markup for either people or software.

So what is the debate?

The debate I will discuss here is almost an ethical one, but has implications that can impact many other spheres – business, policy, economics and politics to name a few. This debate centres around the issue of whether apps run contrary to the very spirit of the web, and are possibly even undermining and sabotaging its long term potential.

Apps essentially extract content from the world wide web, and package it in a private, closed off container. Apps are also distributed and controlled by private organisations to a greater extent than the web, and there are fewer of these private organisations that are realistically in the game (think Apple, Google, HP, RIM, Nokia etc.). There is one key problem that a lot of people have with this: The more people access web-based information through apps, the more control these private organisations have over that information. App manufacturers are in control of what information passes through them, and app store owners are in control of what apps are sold.

The trend is ultimately motivated by money. There are billions of websites that exist that do not generate revenue, and a large amount of them are not intended to generate revenue. Arguably one of the most powerful features of the web is the fact that anyone can create a web site about anything. It could be purely for fun, intended to add value to some community or topic of interest, or act as a voice for a political initiative. Websites like these form a part of the rich interconnected fabric of the web.

The same is not true of apps. Typically – and in fact almost entirely – apps are created for profit – they aim to add value by way of an enhanced user experience, and an aggregation or presentation of information that saves users time and energy. In return, apps are either paid for or they display advertising. There is a clear and undeniable benefit to these apps, and it is the same benefit that drives any traditional capitalistic enterprise: human takes parts and builds a whole that is more valuable to other humans than the parts on their own; human charges other humans for this.

I’m not arguing against capitalism, and I am not saying that apps don’t add value, or that they aren’t an exciting and innovative addition to our experience of the internet. What I will say is that a world in which we spend all of our time consuming information through apps is very different to a world in which we consume information through a web browser. The latter grants us more choice, more freedom, and more power as individual consumers; the former involves (to a certain extent) having choices made for us, less freedom, and the handing over of power to a select few rapidly growing companies (mostly in California). There is no right and wrong, but there is cause and effect. Keep using the web. It’s a beautiful thing.

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