First there were clunky mobile app stores managed by carriers — aka people who don’t know anything about software or user experience — and then there were in-between devices like the early Windows Phone incarnations. Finally, Apple’s built-in apps arrived and set a standard that inspired third-party developers to create something amazing, and they did, just as soon as the platform opened up.
Since then, the tiny mobile development industry bloomed and everything from games and productivity apps to wilder, experimental apps came to fruition. Now, the whole world wants a piece of the action, and here’s what I believe will happen next.
The app, as a fad, will die
Plenty of apps stay hidden because they aren’t worth while, but sometimes impressive developments suffocate under a pile of nonsense. This arises, partly, when apps that don’t exactly need to be apps are created.
Take build your own app companies, for example. I have personally developed a distaste for code-less app builders over the past few months, and not because they aren’t necessary. I just don’t believe the skill level needed to build an immersive, beautiful experience can be simplified. It takes real skill to create something fresh and worth downloading. Like website builders, this isn’t something you can automate.
The resulting template apps don’t do anything an optimized mobile site can’t do, while these companies churn out generic products and charge monthly fees to keep apps live. Cross-platform conversion tools like PhoneGap are another example, where something that was developed as a Web app is converted into a native app…just for the sake of hitting the App Store?
When the first popular apps came to be, they were often cool just because they were apps. Everything from fart buttons to simulated beer glasses seemed awesome, and now that magic is gone. Apps are starting to be judged just like anything else. Does it suck? Can I use it? Will I use it? Reality is setting in and apps for the sake of apps will soon no longer be a selling point. Value will only come from what it does, and if it actually needs to be made.
Native app stores have limits
But now, everyone that uses a mobile phone is being trained to simply tap what they want and navigate visually. Facebook? Tap it. Twitter? Tap it. Our brains are becoming wired for apps and app stores, and it’s changing the way we view the Web. It’s having that effect for a reason, because discovery aside, it works so well.
If everybody makes an app, the store model becomes particularly messy. And when a single company is charged with the task of making sense out of all this chaos, you either have to watch as the whole thing destroys itself or you buckle down and go totalitarian, like Apple.
The Web, on the other hand, already knows how to cope with this mass of creations. It knows how to cope with crappy templates, NSFW sites, virus-laden portals and so on. The Web lets us discover things naturally, and not through a proprietary system. App stores have a lot to learn from the Web, as they become increasingly crowded and lose their sheen.
Our changing browsers
The browser itself, as a go anywhere tool, is certainly changing, and perhaps even dying (same goes for file systems, CDs, privacy, Blackberry, Sega and a host of other things). The average person only goes to a few sites a day, say 5 to 20, and the method of going in and typing every address you need just doesn’t compare to an app-like experience.
Now, as mobile users become increasingly accustomed to visually locate and tap or click on an icon when they need it, the actual process of typing in a URL, let alone “http://…,” doesn’t feel as natural as it once did.
The web as a platform has successful a future ahead of it, in fact I think it has the most promising future, as closed app stores can’t exist on their own. That said, the web as we know it is rapidly changing and soon won’t look anything like it does today, where it’s powered by URLs and a bookmark bar. There are better experiences awaiting, and mobile platforms like iOS are currently leading the way for UX. The web will have to learn and evolve from its address driven past to stay alive.
Chromebooks are the first examples of this, where the line between Web and native apps can’t be easily drawn. Another perfect example is Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko, which looks to bring a Web-only experience to mobile phones.
The traditional browsing experience may slowly shift and change over time as the app model sucks it dry, but with the death of the browser we know today comes new discovery experiences. The distinction between Web apps and native apps is already blurring, and will continue to do so as more processing power shifts to the cloud. This isn’t a bad thing either, because when it comes to what we need, there doesn’t need to be a distinction.
The cloud just reinforces this idea, where our devices are constantly connecting elsewhere to grab what we need and serve it back to us. And while Apple’s current vision of the cloud is more of a support system, pushing more processing and hosting into the air means the advantages of native apps decrease.
Web and native apps won’t be able to exist without each other, and both will have to learn from the other to thrive. Even if the world neglects today’s browser in favor of more app like experiences, the Web has a bright future ahead of it and will continue growing stronger. Just don’t get caught thinking it will stay the way it is forever.