Why does “An App for That” get all the love?

It’s been my observation over the past few months that the iPad has brought the hype about having an i(Pad|Phone|Touch) app to a record high. It’s glamourous to have your app accepted to the App Store, because, I don’t know, it’s in there with 85 different applications that turn your screen white? (It’s a $100-$800 flashlight now!) My personal opinion on this matter is that this is very short-sighted, and that our time would be much better spend building better websites for situations that do not require any of the functionality you truly can’t replicate on the web. Why you say? Well, ask me about it in person and in the right mood and I’ll probably give you a rambling diatribe about this, but because I have to type this out, I’ll try to hit a few of the key points instead:

Do we need 1,000 more single site RSS readers?

Unless you’re writing a graphics heavy game, odds are you’re not doing something that’s requiring you to write a native application. There already exist API calls to tap into many of those device features via the browser, and I would guess that as the tablet market diversifies, even more will be exposed. Using these APIs allows you to progressively enhance the experience of the users whose devices support it, while still providing basically the same user experience to everyone else. Additionally, HTML5 support on these devices (and anyone else who can be disconnected, like laptop users with modern browsers) opens up new capabilities for local storage, and app-like offline functionality.

The Tablet Form Factor is Here to Stay

I would guess that if nothing else, the iPad has cemented the tablet style PC as the sucessor to the netbook. Gradually, all the budget manufacturers will start making their own versions, probably powered by a free OS, probably some form of Android or Chrome OS. Ultimately, I’d guess this will eventually play out like the current PC market, where Apple will take it’s place as the higher-end leader (where they make comfortable profits) and the budget makers nickel and dime each other to death to the benefit of the consumer. As this point, your iPad app is only speaking to a small portion of your potential audience. For arguments sake, even if you have both an app and a site, wouldn’t it be better for your end users if their experience didn’t change as they moved from device to device? Additionally, as Apple’s products become just one of many in the space, how many other apps are you going to have to support that all have the same functionality?

People Will Still Have Full-Powered Computers

My experience so far has been that the iPad, although I think it’s a great device, is no threat to replacing any “real” computer of mine anytime soon. Even my cheap Dell netbook is much more up to the task once I need to write some code, or a document with beyond trial rich-text formatting, or even take notes at a reasonable clip (your experience may be different, but I’m still not comfortable or quick enough to take good notes with the iPad). On the other hand, thanks to the latest browsers embracing a lot of the new functionality offered by HTML5, you can enrich everyone’s experience on your site, instead of just making your app great, and leaving your main site, which is most likely still your break and butter, in a holding pattern.

In Conclusion…

Having said all that, I do believe that apps have their place in the world, but next time the discussion about creating one starts, you should take a good look at the spec and see if it could be done just as well on the web. As a web-developer, you should want to learn about and use these technologies, as they’re the future of your industry, and it would behoove you to stay of top of things!

I’m curious what everyone else thinks along these lines. Am I completely off my rocker here? Does this make sense but not stand a chance against the tide of apps for (insert device / OS here)?

Addendum

Some recent articles on the topic:

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  • http://bflad.myopenid.com/ Brian

    I think the best concept for medium sized mobile devices (the ones not designed not to fit in your pocket) is having the touch display interface, but offering a physical keyboard when necessary. It is almost a requirement for large amounts of typing, whether it be a document, spreadsheet, presentation, or coding. What’s more interesting is seeing the convergence in the desktop market with these touchscreen concepts (thinking of the HP Touchsmart as an example).

  • http://hectcastro.me Hector

    From an organizational perspective, I agree with your assessment. From a user’s perspective, I still find myself leaning toward native applications on mobile devices. But, I also think this will change in the near future as mobile web UI toolkits and API abstractions mature.

    A recent poll on LifeHacker shows interesting results:

    http://lifehacker.com/5675283/do-you-prefer-mobile-browsing-or-dedicated-apps

    My bets are on technologies that fall under the HTML5 umbrella, and WebKit. Flash solutions provide an attractive shortcut for developers already invested in Adobe’s technologies, but in the end I think this produces inferior results. If you need to do something sophisticated, go native — if you don’t, the web is more than capable and is only getting better.

  • Anonymous

    Outside of native specific features, there’s a difference between content, services, and products. There is a case to be made for wrapping up bits of functionality into isolated web connected packages as products. The experience can be better in my opinion. I’m thinking about specific things like games and productivity tools, where having a native ui environment improves the experience.

    I wouldn’t want to replace all of the things I do on my desktop with web sites. The experience of properly done OS X applications beats the best web interfaces usually.

    I still think we agree though. You shouldn’t just throw content or a service into an app to be cool. Users will recognize that there was no thought put into the effort and uninstall.

  • Lew

    I also realize that I should have made the distinction between large format apps, and phone form factor. My rant was mainly at the iPad and it’s soon to be clones more than anything else. My experience has been that apps with a base in smaller devices (say an iPhone app) don’t seem to scale up all that well and, just as often, sites I should be able to use on the large screen have elements that just don’t work well (or at all) on the touch interface.


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