Sunday, December 06, 2009

App Stores and iTunes versus the web

The app store or catalog (such as Apple's iTunes) is an alternative model to web apps. It's a closed platform where all the options are controlled by a central provider. However it's getting massively popular, to the extent that every mobile phone provider has to have one, and it's even seen as the saviour to several industries such as music (iTunes) and news (e-Readers or tablets).

I dislike this model. It's a way for corporations to increase their profits by creating artificial limits on what users can see and do. Even those app stores built with HTML and CSS (such as WebOS or Symbian3) remove the great power of the real web: the ability to hyperlink, search, aggregate, and mash-up.

So, why is the app store becoming so successful? A number of reasons:

  • Higher performance apps, using the device's native hardware. Browsers are still slower in many cases than native software
  • Access to the phone's full features such as camera, accelerometer, etc. Browsers still can't do much of this
  • Great development and design tools that the web still can't match
  • An easy way to get paid - compare the user experience of paying for an app versus registering on a new website and then typing in your credit card details

The only way the web can respond is to build on its strengths, and fix its weaknesses. In fact, some of this is already under way. Browser performance has improved hugely in the last few years, HTML5 is bringing new APIs including geolocation, native video and 3G graphics, and new developer frameworks such as Ruby on Rails are improving development practices.

There's a long way to go before the web can completely beat proprietary developer frameworks. Perhaps the most important gap is the bottom line: sorting out payments on the web, which are currently so frustratingly difficult.

Only with concerted effort among all parties - browser makers, web developers and service providers - can the web win against the app store.