I got an APP now, so, uh, why do I need a website?

August 23, 2011 | John Berndt

I got an app

In a previous blog post, I ruminated at length about the eerie nature of the software/information world, where human beings confidently stipulate all manner of distinctions (between for instance, files, databases, web apps, mobile data, virtual servers, etc.) that, though remarkably similar material under the hood, are considered to be “different sorts of things” because of their norms of use and the capabilities of the interfaces we have to use them. It’s all ultimately “the same stuff,” a semantic quicksand of zeros and ones and pointers among data with no absolute boundaries.

To cope with it all, we have to posit mythological distinctions of type, and pragmatically they need to be the right ones for the moment—regardless of the fact that they can be overturned by just a tweak of functionality here or there. Our brains are always trying to catch up with the far more subtle capabilities that we continually unleash in computing.

In the last few years, the web—a relatively stable, if evolving part of this landscape—has undergone some very major displacements. First (not the subject of here), the world of Social Media, primarily Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have created alternate “channels” for content delivery, competing with the web but also often overlapping with it in multiple senses. More recently, the explosion of mobile and tablet technology has not only created a situation where people are looking at websites while driving, swimming, and bicycling (if commercials are to be believed), it has also created a whole new universe of information delivery in the form of smart phone apps. Apps, with their instant gratification of new powers, are the new candy, often displacing content as the target of downloading.

Essentially apps represent a hybrid between the rich and controlled user experience of desktop applications and the distributed, externally changing, more narrowly presented content of the web. In addition, they add the benefit of “hiding” the guts of the computing experience from the user—the file system and configurations, with all of its potential for trouble and confusion (an approach we’ve seen done badly before, more recently in different versions of Microsoft Windows). The combination narrows the field of attention, creating more direct usability, and for the moment at least, a more simple interface with impressive new functionality. While users still surf the web on their devices, they have a growing set of web enabled apps that potentially displace websites as a more usable, sleeker gateways to web-based information.

All of this should probably be embraced (the popularity of apps being vividly related to their often extreme usefulness), but there are compelling reasons to believe that the transformations from “web” to “apps” will be complicated, slow, and likely ultimately incomplete. Organizations do well to understand these factors and to take them into account as they necessarily deal with a fragmented Internet strategy. There are three main considerations.

First, much of the popularity of apps is based on the relative uncluttered experience and stability of new, streamlined operating systems. Though operating systems built on Linux and Mac technology may fare better than most desktop computers have, over time, these systems will get cluttered with applications, conflicts, and increased demands, so that many of the liabilities of the desktop will most likely reappear. At the same time, the strategy of keeping “the guts” of the file system away from the user (which has been tried many times before on the desktop) is likely to lose momentum at some point. Functional and user demands over time, will most likely swing the pendulum in the other direction bringing the “streamlined” experience somewhat out of focus, as users demand to get to a deeper level of their devices. In other words, the pristine world of apps won’t be pristine for long, losing a major differentiator.

Second, the world of websites is likely to simultaneously become more “app-like” relatively quickly, with smarter sites that reconfigure dramatically for smaller mobile and tablet screens. A major aspect of this is HTML 5, with its Flash-like abilities to create richer app-like behaviors and its ability to access device-specific information, such as geo-location information. This means that soon, much more app-like behavior will be coming across the web through the browser, taking over the entire screen, and using geo-location and device-saved content. Combine that with better voice control, and websites have a potential to outdo apps at their own game, avoiding awkward upgrade cycles and providing much of the same functionality without having to install anything. That is, assuming web developers are doing their job!

Third, there is the operational issue of how an organization manages the data and relationships behind an app, which may be re-used with web or other applications. To generalize, grand schemes of “enterprise architecture” often haven’t worked in the real world, while the more humble world of the “multi-channel content management (CMS)” provides a more successful and manageable paradigm that works.

For this reason, there is a high chance that, at least for the time being, much of the data showing up in apps will be served out of web CMS products, leveraging these platforms to provide structure, categorization, and in some cases personalization—usually through a standard web services interface. For this reason, for the near term, websites are very likely to have a new status as a sort of “mothership” for an organization’s publishing operation, providing a central repository for content circled by new channels to mobile app, social network, and other types of distribution.

For all of these reasons, though one can’t say that the website is here to stay, it is certainly the case that it will be a major part of the online architecture for the foreseeable future. For organizations, this unfortunately means the need for multiple expenses and more complex approaches to strategy.

One further, far more projective consideration: mobile devices and tablets themselves will also change dramatically over time, in ways that may be more “website friendly.” The narrow window of the single app, while a boon to usability, will likely be under pressure towards a more cluttered, window-based design, with larger screens. While the exact nature of future devices is unclear, it’s very likely that they will support richer experiences, with more ability to quickly navigate through connected universes of data. The tools may be superior to web browsers and desktop systems, but they are likely to be more like them than apps, and to leverage some enhanced versions of today’s web technologies.

At the end of the day, all of these evolving formats are pushed this way and that by the twin forces of usability (clarity and simplification) and user flexibility (as users demand access to broader features and content ever-more immediately). As we’ve seen before, this results in a dialectical back and forth between streamlining standards on the one hand, and the more overgrown and complex experiences that come when the user is given more control. Things get simpler, and then they get more complex, and so forth. Part of why websites have had the long life they have is their relative flexibility and scalability in this regard, and because of their relative ability to model very complex, changing content relationships of interest to the user.

The landscape will certainly change as result of these pressures, and new capabilities become possible, but many of the familiar themes will reoccur, often simply transposed to a different level. The landscape could all change quite a bit, while strangely, staying the same. A few years from now, we may look back and wonder why we ever thought apps shouldn’t live in a website that lives inside an app living inside a website living inside an app. Such a crazy scheme will all seem cogent and straightforward and right to us then—and though the user experience may be only a few degrees different at the end of the day, to us, it will make all the difference.

[TBG (The Berndt Group) is a developer of both Mobile-aware websites, and mobile applications. Contact us to talk about how we can take your mobile strategy to the next level.]

About the Author

John Berndt

I'm CEO of TBG and I've been thinking about the Web in creative ways since the year it began.

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