Apps: the future of tech or a passing fad?

Perhaps as a result of this shift, cross-pollination is increasing between Apple systems, mostly with concepts from iOS infiltrating Mac OS X. This, along with the massive success of the App Store, meant it was inevitable that Apple would bring the 'app' model to the desktop.

Announced in 2010, the Mac App Store arrived in January 2011, and although only available to a minority of Mac users (those running Snow Leopard who have updated the operating system to version 10.6.6), the store had over a million downloads within its first day.

As on iOS, the Mac-based store distils the process of purchase and installation down to a couple of clicks and a password, and it also potentially increases exposure for apps, along with dealing with the supply chain, freeing developers to concentrate on other things. (Because of this, several long-time Mac developers took only a few days to go Mac App Store-only with their products.)

It's clear that this is where Apple sees the future of apps on the desktop. Unlike the iOS App Store, the Mac App Store isn't the only way to install third-party applications, but Thomson argues that "it will soon be the default way most Mac users find and buy software".

Gadd agrees, pointing to a potentially rosy future for developers as users realise they can click on a Dock icon, then, without much effort, "find an app to do a specific task more easily". He adds: "Since users can search, browse and buy securely within one application, that'll make them feel more at ease. You'll be less likely to find people worrying they'll 'break' the computer if they download something."

Dumbing down

Although a success, big names like Microsoft and Adobe were notably absent from the Mac App Store's launch; elsewhere, popular utilities like Default Folder X are barred for not adhering to Apple's relatively strict rules regarding the type of application allowed for sale in its store.

It was also notable that most launch products were casual games or simple utilities, often ported from iOS. Plenty disregard or break Mac conventions, threatening a cornerstone of usability on a windowed system: consistency - knowing what's likely to happen when you perform a certain action.

Those worries have been compounded by demos of Mac OS X Lion, which champions an iOS-like full-screen app view, devoid of dock, windows and taskbars, leading to what some call the 'appisation' of the Mac - a dumbing-down that could spell the end of traditional computing if Microsoft subsequently follows suit.

Some developers shudder at this prospect. "A desktop computer isn't a tablet or a phone - the interaction model is different and only certain apps benefit from the full-screen approach," argues Walsh, who hopes the windowing model remains.

Others aren't so sure, suggesting that Apple's app model could soon become commonplace throughout the computing world. "The atomisation is a good thing," says Jakubowski. "Prices go down, apps are more focused and are better at what they do. Competition increases, leading to more well-designed apps."

Kotecha also isn't against Apple's plans: "Full-screen apps are the way to go on smaller devices, where window management is frustrating." As computing becomes more mobile and portable, Jakubowski expects the app model to take hold, relegating the application window to a niche "desktop computer world" where the "hassles of window management and filesystems will stay in an environment where they still matter".

Store wars

Of course, Apple is hardly alone in the battle of the apps. Although arguably the leader in the field - a surprising turn of events in itself, given Apple's relatively niche position on the desktop-other companies are fighting back.

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Google in particular has risen to the challenge, although it's clear that the search giant's vision for the future of apps is wildly different from Apple's own. Where Apple seeks to control and enhance user experience by way of curation, emphasis on quality and a single place to purchase apps, Google's primary motivation remains ad revenue.

Therefore, in Google's mobile offering, Android Market is almost the polar opposite of Apple's App Store: there's barely any curation, open (albeit often minor) intellectual property breaches are rife, and, crucially, it's not the only place Android users can download third-party software for their devices.

Various carriers offer storefronts, and even Amazon is prepping an Android store. But as much as Apple's stance regarding apps is propelling the concept forwards, there's some consensus that Google's efforts do the opposite.

Android users typically remain apathetic towards apps, not caring about them or citing usability and quality issues. "Part of the problem is [that] it's tough for developers to test apps across the different device and OS combinations on the market," explains W3i cofounder Robert Weber. "This leads to crap getting out into the market - Google should focus on providing better tools to Android developers for testing."

There's also been the thorny issue of payment mechanisms; in stark contrast to the App Store, with its millions of credit cards linked to iTunes, Android Market initially only enabled US and UK developers to offer paid apps.

Value for money

The payment situation has slowly improved, but user experience is now such that 'free' is the expected price for mist apps.

While advocates of open software laud this notion, Kotecha thinks it's detrimental to the platform as a whole. "Quality apps take time to build," he says. "There must be a clear monetisation mechanism for app development if a platform wants quality apps."

Without this, the perception of Android apps - indeed, apps as a whole, given that Android is gaining traction and now leading the way in smartphone market share - could become one of low quality and poor usability.

Zattikka producer Robin Clarke thinks this kind of lowbrow, anything-goes ecosystem leads to "a situation where nobody is willing to stick their neck out and invest in making their offering good enough to be the de-facto standard," and hopes Google will "lead by example and make Android Market competitive with the iOS App Store."

It's possible that Amazon could take up that particular challenge, since its vision of an Android app store appears closer to Apple's store than Google's, with app-screening and an emphasis on quality. And while Amazon will discount apps as and when it sees fit, quickfire discounts are common on Apple's stores, too.

If this is indeed what transpires in 2011, it will likely revolutionise Android apps and perhaps dismiss the belief that apps should be free. Weber reckons Android developers will finally start making some decent money, prompting more developers to take an interest in the platform, increasing competition and raising the quality of apps.

And Weber adds that the scenario also provides a major advantage over Apple, in that by offering competing but 'fragmented' distribution points, a "higher quantity of developers can get a piece of each of those distribution points," rather than on iOS where there's only one store with one set of charts.

Heading online

With fragmentation affecting monetisation, usability and the public perception of apps as useful, you'd think a trend towards a locked-down Apple-style approach would be inevitable. But some in the industry would prefer to obliterate the concept of locking down apps for good.


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The main driving force behind this model is Mozilla, which wants to leverage open web standards with its Open Web Applications concept, and create an app ecosystem that isn't reliant on any one device or locked down to any one store. This would remove Apple-style censorship and carrier lock-ins (Android itself may be touted as 'open', but carriers regularly block stores and services from Android devices or force their own products to act as the main entry point to apps).

Pascal Finette, Director of Mozilla Labs, claims that web apps also offer additional benefits: "From a developer perspective, they dramatically lower development costs and often complexity, especially when a developer wants to target multiple platforms - there's no porting an Objective C iPhone app to Java in Android. For users, web apps provide similar functionality to native apps, but allow for portability - you can take an app from desktop to mobile and vice versa."

In the cloud

Finette optimistically believes that, in the mid-to-long-term, the vast majority of apps will be written on top of the Open Web stack, but this isn't yet a popular viewpoint.

Despite being a month older than the Mac App Store, the Chrome Web Store is already seemingly floundering: unable to drive traffic to developers, sales have been described rather generously as 'lacklustre' in the technology press - and monetisation isn't the only problem it's facing.

"Apple's app model destroyed the advantage of pure web apps compared to native code," argues Kotecha. "The biggest problems native apps had were discoverability and reliability in terms of impact on the system," he explains.

"But iOS dealt with those problems, and you can now have an app running on a mobile device that talks to a server and stores data locally, but that also provides a rich user experience. Comparatively, web apps seem like a very weak proposition. Native code will always allow a developer the freedom to be more creative in their software development."

Similarly, developers seem dismissive of those who advocate 'open' and cloud storage as the only future for apps. "'Open' is the most meaningless word in the tech industry today," grumbles Kotecha. "Where it's being used, you don't need to look very far to see someone's business agenda at play - when Mozilla says 'install anywhere', it means 'install anywhere Mozilla technology can be installed'."

And while Gadd says that he'd "love for there to be some form of reliable, always-on connectivity," such things aren't, and may never be, entirely viable: "Between ISP failures, power failures and lack of mobile coverage alone, relying on being able to reach a remote service to do any work is asking for trouble."

On storage, Kotecha says pitching 'cloud' versus 'local' is a red herring: "Users and apps will use both the cloud and local storage. Even if cloud-based technology becomes widespread, the need for local storage isn't going anywhere -after all, you still carry a wallet with you, even though you have a bank account."

And a similar hybrid approach is likely to be how apps evolve, thinks Weber: "Especially on mobile, native clients with web functionality will dominate, despite all the hype about HTML5 apps stealing the limelight away from existing native mobile apps."

Looking at the app market to date, iterative changes are predictable: the best iOS apps will continue to evolve, remaining focused and usable, but increasing in sophistication, enabling users to perform increasingly complex tasks.

Android will follow suit to some extent, perhaps driven by Amazon at the high end, and Google flooding the market with free, ad-supported apps.

Mobile stores on other platforms will see rapid growth as hardware improves and lessons are learned from market leaders, and while browsers won't take over, they will expose new features to apps and offer richer experiences for those choosing to favour web apps.

App to the future

It remains to be seen whether Android's market-lead will result in a shift in emphasis regarding target platforms, leading to more demand for tight-budget, cross-platform development, resulting in compromises on iOS; Kotecha thinks it's feasible the app approach will simply raise everyone's game, "driving mainstream users to be more demanding of user experiences in all areas they encounter software".

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Windows is perhaps the platform that could benefit most from such thinking, and rumours of an app store for Windows 8 abound. Walsh wonders whether Microsoft could use an app store to distance itself from past accusations of vendor lock-in and monopoly abuse by directing users to third-party software from day one.

"Couple that with the potential for keeping people on Windows and the money they could make in the process, it's pretty much a no-brainer for the company," he thinks. "That being said, I've little faith in Microsoft getting it quite right first time, but they'll keep at it until it's decent."

Gadd adds such a store could also reduce viruses and malware on Windows PCs, if Microsoft adopted an approvals process akin to Apple's and pushed its app store as the default.

TV or not TV?

The other major platform being touted as perfect for apps is television. "But TV is a difficult fit for apps, apart from games and passive media," says Walsh. "The use-case just isn't there - no one wants to browse the web or edit documents on their TV, and I think that has to do with how TVs are situated in many homes as an entertainment device and not a 'work' device. Maybe that will change, but I'm not holding my breath."

Kotecha quips that the same platform that has successfully dominated TV will continue to do so: TV programmes, rather scuppering the long-held belief that convergence would inevitably lead to the emergence of a dominant platform, and that platform would be the television. It's the app economy that's destroyed this idea.

The smartphone boom has made people realise once again that they want different devices for different tasks: social networking, music and gaming on smartphones; reading and light work on tablets; more complex tasks on desktop PCs.

No one device can do all these things satisfactorily. However the app economy has also driven a thirst for single-purpose, focused apps, services can more easily thrive across multiple platforms.

"I don't think that any one device or system will dominate the market," concludes Jakubowski. "Rather we'll see a multitude of devices with certain services available on all of them, delivered through apps."