There’s An App For That – But Why?

This isn’t about all the silly little time-wasting games for your phone (though there are plenty of those). Nor is it about all the various programs that let you perform useful tasks with your phone or tablet, such as calculators, photo and video editors, and other standalone applications. It’s about all the “apps” that do things you can easily do with your web browser (remember the web? if your phone has apps it certainly has a browser, too).  Those of you thinking “I don’t have a smartphone or tablet, so why should I care?” — keep reading. This trend of using proprietary software to access and use information and content that is (or should be) readily available on the web is starting to spill over from phones and tablets into the realm of traditional computers, too.

Apps vs Websites

There are apps for all sorts of things that don’t need to be apps – reference info, just about every newspaper and TV network, weather, movie and restaurant reviews and more. What do they offer that can’t be had on their websites? Usually nothing, or else it is something that is intentionally withheld from the website to coerce folks into using the app.  There’s another bunch of apps that do little more than stream audio or video from the web which, again, is easily accomplished with any standard web browser.

Who’s In Control?

I think part of the attraction for content providers has to do with control and metrics. A piece of proprietary software gives the provider total control. While a web browser allows the user some control over appearance (resizing windows, changing font size, filtering graphics), an app gives the user only the exact options its developer chooses, making for tighter control over the “user experience.” An app can also supply much more accurate and detailed feedback to the content provider than a website can.

Media Management

The app environment also gives the provider more control over multimedia content than might be possible within a web browser. Some providers are afraid of their content being “stolen” (is something missing?); they use apps as a way to avoid less secure but more common file formats and modes of data transport.

All About Advertising

The ability to deliver advertising, or more precisely, the inability of the user to block advertising is probably another factor. In fact, the new-to-USA Spotify music service makes you to install their program to use it, even on a computer, despite the fact that most other music streaming services work in any web browser. Of course Spotify officially supports only Windows and Mac, so they have nothing to offer me. Or do they? It seems there’s a beta version for Linux, so I thought I’d see what it’s all about. Here’s where it gets interesting: their Linux software only works with a premium (paying) account. Why? “As we haven’t found a reliable way to display ads yet, this version is only available to Spotify Premium and Unlimited subscribers.” So, because they can’t figure out how to push ads, I should pay for a subscription, while users of certain operating systems can use it for free? I think not. Groove Shark does essentially the same thing, in any browser, for free.

Forced Browser Choice

Recently I encountered a variation on the theme. Until very recently, Amazon has required that you either use an actual Kindle or their proprietary PC, phone, or tablet software “app” to read the eBooks that they sell. I own a Kindle, but sometimes it would be nice to be able to read my Kindle books on my netbook or laptop. Of course, even though the Kindle e-reader runs Linux, Amazon doesn’t have Kindle software for desktop Linux — only Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. Just the other day they released a “Cloud Reader” that would let me read my Kindle books on any device with a web browser. Almost. It actually works only with Chrome and Safari. So while they no longer force their software on you, they do insist that Windows and Linux users install Google’s Chrome browser. Why do they not support the more common and popular Firefox for Linux and Firefox or IE for Windows? They promise “Support for additional browsers coming soon.” We’ll see. Interestingly, the reason they went to a web app was to sidestep the iPad Kindle app and the 30% Apple gets from each book purchased through it, so that explains why Safari is supported. Guess I won’t be using the “Kindle Cloud Reader” anytime soon.

What About You?

Are you annoyed by the trend of proprietary software replacing universal open web access? How about other “walled gardens” like Facebook? I am, and avoid them like the plague. If I have the choice between using the web or using proprietary software, I’ll use the web. If I have to download proprietary software or join a social networking site just to see, hear, or read something, then I probably won’t be seeing, hearing, or reading it. What about you?

23 responses to “There’s An App For That – But Why?

  1. Thanks for this post, Mike. I’ve been wondering why all the apps are touted as desirable and/or necessary, and I like your response: they aren’t. I’m still too Luddite to have to worry about that in real life, but in theory, and in similar situations, I’m with you – stay as basic and universal as possible. Good post!

  2. I can understand your position, although I don’t share it, especially since I have the underlying structure necessary for most stuff, and already use the required browsers anyway. But also, I feel that if whatever it is that is required is FREE, I am game for it. If I have to pay for something, i.e. apps, then I pass.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Hi Marti. I have no problem with downloading codecs, plugins, or helper software necessary for new file formats and such. My objection is when the content provider wants me to install their software to access their content. To be honest, I tend not to trust their motives, and in some cases I don’t trust their software either since I don’t know what it might be up to behind the scenes. My paranoia notwithstanding, and even though most content and information apps are free, they are still digital clutter and shouldn’t be necessary.

  3. Sometimes I look at the app market as “substitutes for a mobile version of the website”. My bank, for instance, *does* have a mobile version of the website. But I’ve seen others that do it with an app – and the two experiences are very similar.

    But you’re definitely right – many apps are little more than, say, a streaming media player.

    As for things like Kindle, I’m not aware of any business interest that Amazon has in Chrome (and certainly not Safari!) – so I’m inclined to believe that Amazon is dealing with some sort of licensing limitation, or some browser compatibility issues with IE and/or Firefox. There are lots of potential reasons to exclude browsers from an initial launch.

    To me, something like Angry Birds is a reasonable use for an app. Accessing my insurance or banking information isn’t.

    And on the PC/Mac/Linux, the criteria for me are even more rigid. I strongly prefer browser-based content (whether it’s Java, Flash, HTML5, or just regular plain ol’ webpages) because that content is accessible anywhere with an Internet connection.

    Just my thoughts. 🙂

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      That’s a great way to look at it, Robert – substitutes for mobile versions of websites. And those are the kind that are just digital clutter. Something that actually extends the functionality of the device, or maybe presents content in a way that’s genuinely better and impossible to duplicate in a browser is OK.

      On the Kindle web app, they do mention that it is HTML5, so perhaps that accounts for the limited browser support? But I thought Firefox already supports HTML5 (though I might be mistaken).

      Great point in your last paragraph that I didn’t even think of. If it is web-based, I can access it anywhere, on almost any device. Great if one uses public, shared or borrowed computers where it is impossible or impractical to install proprietary software. Thanks!

  4. With this discussion in mind, I just now downloaded Google Earth with Chrome, and declined their ahem, offer, to make Chrome my default browser. Which I might anyway, but the choice will be mine. All I wanted on Google Earth was the street view of one address, and it irked me that I couldn’t just look it up on their website. I downloaded Spotify, and the principle irks me, but I like it better than Grooveshard because their library is bigger.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      So Google is holding out on its online map users, Meg? They have street views in Earth that aren’t available on their website? That really rubs me the wrong way, but thanks for saying it. I’ve used Google Earth before, and while it does do some neat things, I didn’t find it compelling enough to justify keeping it, especially considering it is a big resource hog and has to download virtually everything it displays on the fly anyway.

      I’m glad you’ve tried Spotify and like it. Maybe I’ll give it a try if they come out with a web app someday.

  5. Well I think big business has realized there’s no potential profit in an open source community like Linux users. Those Linux people are too smart to get sucked in, eh?

    Great post Mike. Patrick and I were just lamenting the cost of the adobe suite. I had it on windows version and when we upgraded to Mac recently, our adobe software couldn’t come with us (barring a partition solution). Patrick was frothing at the mouth yesterday hooting and hollering that just photoshop is $799 at a base price. We settled for the free mac app, Gimp, instead.

    Free apps, yeah! Paid apps? It better be something really special. Same thing with plugins for blogs and widgets for websites.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      I use the Gimp in Linux all the time, Tanja. Used to have Photoshop in WIndows, but haven’t touched it in almost five years. While there is a learning curve with any new (to you) software, and there are a few (but fewer than you’d think) features you might find missing, it is a great program. I can’t honestly recall ever wishing I still had Photoshop once I learned to find my way around the Gimp and figured out where all my favorite tools were and how to use them.

    • I have no idea what you’re saying when you suggest there’s no potential profit in open source – there’s craploads of money in Linux and open source. Look at Red Hat, just for starters. MySQL is another good example.

      The revenue model is *different*, and the costs are distributed differently – but there’s still serious money to be had there.

      Going back to the Linux/Amazon topic, I’d wager serious cash that Amazon’s decision to not do native Linux software (even though the Kindle runs Linux) probably has more to do with the weirdness of building software for the Linux platform than anything else.

      People talk about operating systems like “Linux” is one option. Linux is a dozen or more options, each of which is slightly (or massively) different from the others. The single most reliable way to build software for Linux is to compile it from source – and that would probably leave Amazon’s proprietary DRM tech exposed. Since the DRM tech is part of how they guarantee ebook security to the publishers….you see where this is going.

      Tanja, for your Photoshop, you can get the VMWare software for the Mac and install your VMWare on a virtual copy of Windows. To the best of my knowledge, everything other than Photoshop is a free download.

      • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

        Regarding Amazon and Linux: Of course they wouldn’t release source code that would compromise their DRM scheme. OTOH, the release process isn’t as complex as you suggest. While there are dozens of distributions (see, only a small handful are popular in the desktop arena, which could actually be covered by two or three packages. In fact, it has become customary, especially as Linux is attempting to become more non-geek friendly, for developers to release precompiled packages.

        All that aside, I think Linux still scares Amazon and others (some of the pay-for-movies providers come to mind) because even if their proprietary code might be compiled and reasonably safe, it still must run on an open source platform whose workings are quite transparent to a knowledgeable user. Much less smoke and fewer mirrors than Windows or Mac to help obfuscate processes and hide files.

        Oh, and with the Kindle, one of the reasons the original Kindle was replaced (and is no longer being updated, though it still works), in addition to style and usability upgrades, is the fact that it can be fairly easily rooted (there is an accessible serial port to which a terminal can be connected, giving shell access) and it has an SD memory card slot. All in all, too vulnerable for Amazon’s comfort.

      • I know I’ve had bad luck with precompiled binaries myself in the past – but that’s on server versions. Maybe desktop is better. 🙂

        I didn’t know that about the original Kindle. Interesting stuff – although I’m still trying to think of a good use for root access on a black and white e-reader with a crappy keyboard. 😀

  6. Wow! Lots of great discussion on this post…

    I don’t like the idea of proprietary software at all. In fact, I don’t even have anything that will do apps, so that puts me out of that discussion.

    But I’m about to write a post about trying to figure away to handle my business accouting without Quicken, something with which I have so far failed. Quicken turns itself off as it gets older so you must buy a new version. Stupid.


  7. Mike | HomelessOnWheels

    That should be quite a challenge for you, Gip. Hopefully you can find something else that will work for you, and also be able to export your existing data from Quicken. Forced upgrades are, IMO, a rather sleazy marketing tactic. A friend has GPS software he runs on a laptop (basically turns it into a GPS navigator with a really big screen). They no longer offer map updates for the version he uses – his only option is to keep using the out-of-date maps or upgrade the whole software package. Not only is the whole new program more expensive than just a map update should be, but the new version is totally different and incompatible with data files he’s already created.

    • I don’t necessarily mind if a vendor stops supporting older versions of software. There are two very relevant questions though – the first is “how old is the software they’re not supporting?” and “Can I keep using it anyway?”

      Take QuickBooks for example (the business version of Quicken, basically). They release a new version every year or so, and I think they keep releasing updates for payroll and such for the past three versions or so.

      But you can install and run a version of QuickBooks from 1999 as long as your operating system will support it – you just can’t get access to some of the extra subscription-based add-ons. None of this, however, interferes with the basic running of your business.

      And if you take that QuickBooks software from 1999 and want to upgrade to the 2011 version, your existing data file will work (or, more accurately, your existing data file will be upgraded to the new format – but all of your data will be preserved).

      I think there’s an acceptable middle ground somewhere between forced upgrades and making vendors support old software in perpetuity. 🙂

  8. Pingback: Toward A Simpler Replacement For Quicken | So Much More Life

  9. When you write: “So, because they can’t figure out how to push ads, I should pay for a subscription, while users of certain operating systems can use it for free? I think not.” I wonder who you think is going to pay for development, hosting, and artists?

    If we are all unwilling to pay for anything the only business models we are left with are ads or crap services.

    Why not support the folks who provide what you want/need?

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, ET. The point I was trying to make is that the Win and Mac versions have the option of limited ad-supported access, while the Linux version does not. Not even the ability to try the software to see how (or even if) it works on my system without having to first subscribe to a premium service I might end up not liking or not even being able to use.

  10. I think what you are talking about in this article is the same phenomenon that PCs went through years ago, that is, installed apps vs web based access. We all know who won that fight, we don’t install encyclopedia or map programs on our computer any more, and soon we won’t do it on our phones.

    In my opinion, the driving force behind this regression of sorts is the lack of performance and incompatible standards between desktop and mobile versions. B/c phones at least until recently (and some would argue that even now) were not powerful enough to render desktop centric web content, providers created customized solutions that catered to the capabilities of these devices in the form of mobile websites and apps. These are just place holders while mobile devices catch up to the capabilities of their desktop counterparts. But it’s not just the hardware, mobile data speeds are only now catching up to what has been available to desktops for years.

    I for one REFUSED to buy a smartphone until they were powerful enough to render web pages in full HTML.

    The ideal situation for content providers is to be able to create ONE access method that can be viewed the same on ANY device. Least effort, maximum effectiveness. As such, we will see more and more web content that caters to the lowest spec devices GOING FORWARD, but there is simply too much content out there that is already beyond the capabilities of recent and even some current mobile devices to convert it all over (as Apple would like to see, thus the refusal to support Flash, etc etc….)

    Unfortunately, due to the rapid progress and cut throat competition taking place in the mobile market, what started out as a stopgap way to more quickly get content to audiences became a sales buzz-word. Cell phone companies have latched on to things like apps, screen size, front facing camera, or other catch phrase features to differentiate themselves from their competition. What do you think of when you hear iphone? It used to be itunes and music, now it’s the number of apps available because the competition like WP7 and Android have great music solutions too. …before that it was screen size. …before that everyone was buying mini-stereos with ipod docks. etc etc

    Even the allure of apps is falling flat with customers now that you can get tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of apps on most platforms. The entire recent history of mobile smart phones can be traced from one artificial sales fad to the next, all designed to attract more customers than the other guys. Apple of course is not the only guilty party, just the most successful.

    One wonders what they plan to do when they run out of ways to differentiate from the competition, or at least one did before the release of the ipad. With the ipad, we are seeing the same cycle that phones went through, but at super speed. The apps are coming faster, the accessories have already come and gone, what do you think is next.

    In my experience, after taking poles in marketing classes in college, it’s clear that most people don’t use more than a couple apps that didn’t come pre-loaded on their device (aside from games of course). In my admittedly limited sampling about 95% of people didn’t use more than 5 apps that they had to download on a weekly basis.

    In the future, I agree that the role of apps will diminish the same as they did on PCs, but not until the hardware and mobile data capabilities come a bit further along. I expect this to really culminate as 4G spreads and dual and quad core mobile devices become more prevalent. The fact that apps have become a buzz-word might slow this process, but as developers see their income from apps shrink to nothing, the problem will solve itself. The free market will not be stopped, it’s just a matter of time.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Triez. You make some excellent points, especially about devise life cycles and capabiities. Then there’s the whole issue of whether content should be download and stored locally or streamed from the cloud. I have a gripe about streaming — movies in particular. It might be no problem for folks in town with screaming fast internet connections, but I’m out in the boonies and rely on a slow (by today’s standards) “3g” wireless connection that, where I am now, gives me maybe 1megabit on a good day, and often much slower. I can’t find a legal source of movies that will allow me to DOWNLOAD a file. That would let me download a movie, say, in the morning to watch that evening, giving it plenty of time. All they want to let me do is STREAM, and at my slow speeds, I often get hiccuping and buffering of even a crummy SV or QVGA video, and HD is impossible. I used to use a trick of starting the movie and then pausing to let the buffer fill up, but now they don’t even support that – if you leave it paused for more than a few minutes the server will time out and you then have to start from scratch. I can always buy or rent plastic discs, but it seems those are being slowly phased out in favor of streaming, at least for the rent-by-mail market.

  11. If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. — Andrew Lewis MetaFilter, August 26, 2010

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