App Store not invited to web's date with destiny

HTML and URL all the way

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Open...and Shut Just as the web seemed to have won - with consumers living their lives online through Facebook and Google and enterprises embracing cloud computing - along comes the mobile app to spoil the party.

And while mobile apps aren't the only force prompting a reconsideration of the web, as noted in The Economist, no single factor may be more potent.

After discovering the freedom the web offered us for years, why this return to the isolation of closed apps?

Financial Times journalist Richard Waters suggests here (warning: PDF) that the apps' convenience is the reason we're so eager to cede control to app (and app store) vendors:

On the small screens of smartphones...the battle between app stores and the wide-open web looks to be over. Consumers have voted with their thumbs: the easiest way to find and access a service is through an app, not surf to a web page.

This is true so far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn't go very far.

There is nothing particularly easy about app stores, except initial installation. They are orthogonal to the app discovery experience, because they inherently stifle sharing. It's true that the primary way to find new apps today is through a search in your favorite app store, but this is a very recent phenomenon, and history suggests it will almost certainly be short-lived.

Further, it's unclear why searching within an app store need be any better at discovery than searching within a web browser (perhaps one tuned to apps?).

The web introduced a powerful way to discover new content: the hyperlink. To think that we're going to abandon this method of exploring in favor of a isolating app store search is incredibly shortsighted, though I suspect the way we interact with URLs absolutely will change. It will be less about typing in a URL and more about apps linking to each other through URLs hidden to the end user.

It's doubtful, for example, that most people have the patience to thumb a URL into their smartphone, though services like Bit.ly could make this an easier process.

But it's not clear why the app store model is any better: a user must first think of what they want, then head to an app store that is completely separate from whatever it was they were previously doing (browsing the web, playing Angry Birds, or whatever), then type in an approximate description of the sort of app they want, and then download it.

That's not progress from the lowly URL. It's a massive step backward.

It's backward because it limits the power of casual discovery and installation of new content and other app experiences.

I spent the past week meeting with several of Europe's largest publishers. Over and over again they told me how frustrated they are with app stores' limitations in helping them find new readers and take their content to the reader, rather than forcing the reader to come to them. They're also, incidentally, frustrated with Apple's newly enforced policy on subscriptions, but are taking heart at how quickly app developer Readability was able to switch from native to HTML5 in less than a month and thereby thumb its nose at Apple.

App and content developers are looking for ways to push their app experience to new and existing users. The standalone app model expressly prohibits this. The only way to experience The Economist app is to download and install the app. I can't share the app experience that The Economist's development team worked so hard to build. Heck, in that particular app, I can't even share any of the content: there's no way to share through Facebook, Twitter, or even lowly email.

Now consider the even lowlier URL. The same app built with HTML5 could be completely shareable. I might link to the app on Twitter, and every person following me could access not just the content I appreciated, but also the entire content app experience.

Or think of games. I love Conquest, a Risk clone that I play regularly on my iPhone. You can read this article and decide to go out and download the app - assuming it works on your chosen platform - but wouldn't it be better if you could simply click on a link to it and immediately experience the app?

That sort of immediacy is not only easier for consumers, because it lets them experience apps where they already choose to be, but it's also better for the developer because it means their app is more likely to be adopted, used, and paid for.

That's powerful. It's also increasingly feasible as the fragmented mobile operating system world is converging on WebKit and HTML5 to unify the mobile web, a web that is more than capable of delivering an app experience without stranding users in apps.

Granted, I'm biased in this native app vs. HTML5 app debate, as I work for an HTML5 company. But unless one OS vendor completely dominates - and that doesn't look remotely likely - app developers are going to end up "defragmenting" the market with the web, a trend that Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond is already seeing. And just as the open web won out over CompuServe and AOL, expect connected web apps to win out over app islands.

Yes, we're in a transition period where standalone apps make sense. But to believe that "it's an app internet" now and forevermore is crazy talk, and assumes that there's more value in isolation than in connections. In other words, that apps are better than the Internet.

They're not. The isolated app model is fundamentally inferior to an open web of connected content and apps, one that is infinitely more shareable and more discoverable. Sure, there's going to be plenty of room for hybrid approaches to web/native apps, and that's healthy.

But let's not assume that consumers and developers have turned their backs on the web. Not even close. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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