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And websites now will later be apps, for the times they are a changin’

May 27, 2010

Here’s a blogging maxim: if you think of it, blog it now. I keep a notebook of potential posts and points of view and when I have an idea or insight rattling around, I jot it down. There it stays until I scan through the morning’s RSS and see someone else who got off their ass and wrote it down and hit submit.

Nevertheless, I’ve been noticing an interesting crosscurrent: at the same time apps are becoming web sites, web sites are becoming apps. Nothing revolutionary; I just hadn’t looked at these phenomena at the same time.

Piknik - a web-based photo editing app

Piknik - a web-based photo editing app

Apps are being replaced by web sites

Microsoft Word or Google Docs? I’m still using Word 2004 for the Mac, which came on a CD-ROM and had some horrible activation system. (When I bought my daughter the educational version of Word for the Mac, the whole activation thing never really worked.) All I wanted was to create, edit, and publish well-formatted textual documents. I saw Writely for the first time in 2005 at the Web 2.0 expo, and for the first time I noted a tipping away from OS-installed apps. I had experience with X-based systems and found them less than satisfactory. They usually made me adapt to the system rather than provide a system that was designed with me in mind. Increasingly, though, browser-based apps, a hallmark of Web 2.0, have provided functionality previously seen only in apps.

Netflix app for iPad

Netflix app for iPad

Web sites are being replaced by apps

Here’s the cross-current. Just as things I used to do with apps, I now do with my browser and a web service, things I used to do by going to a web site, I’m doing with an app on my iPad. This cognitive dissonance started on the iPhone (or in my case, iPod Touch), and continues in an even more pronounced way on my iPad. Though these devices have built-in browsers and many sites have mobile-styled versions, true experience is best provided with native apps. Now content I used to go to a web site for is provided via a custom application. Here’s IMDB, Time Magazine, NetFlix, Mashable, Wolfram Alpha, each with its own iPad app, each providing a much richer experience than their corresponding web sites. These apps are so tailored to fit the device and its operating environment, it would be hard to duplicate on the web.

This ties into the whole platform ownership debate now boiling between Apple and Adobe. This is echoing the state of things a decade ago when Mac-native applications that tied into the Mac OS in a native way outshone apps that were designed to a common denominator (think Java apps). App interfaces developed as browser-based, even standards-based, still won’t be the perfect match of design, function, and platform.

That may be the rub, though. The advantage of standards-based interfaces is a more predictable user experience. Apple did a great job on the Mac of getting developers to use the standard interface toolkit to provide predictable experience, and while standard interfaces exist on the iPad, I’m seeing wider diversity of design in iPad apps. Will this provide better or diminished user experience? Time will tell.

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