And why shouldn’t it? The web is open, accessible to anyone with a browser and is also widely adaptable. A browser window is many things: a television screen, a newspaper, a chat window, a social network or a webcam display.
But all of these uses of the web now compete with things that, instead of running through a browser, run in their own specific world: apps.
Apps work through the internet, but not on the web proper. For that reason, they are less democratic and open than the web. While almost anyone in the wealthier parts of the world can access a web site somehow – whether through a home computer or one at a school or library – apps require that you own the hardware their ecosystem is tied to. Android apps need Android phones, iOS apps need iOS products, and so on.
But despite this drawback, the shift to apps isn’t going away – mainly because apps allow for unique, customized experiences. And maybe, for some select applications, that is actually a better option than the open web.
Apps Offer Better Content Experiences
Though the open web is excellent at delivering content in a variety of forms, what it sometimes lacks are customized experiences and unique, specialized interfaces. If you think about it, most websites follow the same basic pattern: there’s some organizational stuff at the top, a list of stories underneath and maybe a column on the left or right that lets you jump to some other content. Sure, it’s functional, but hardly exciting.
What apps do is allow for more flexibility in how people engage with content. Take a look at the Twitter iPad app, which is an excellent example of this. It allows you to do things like pinch and zoom to expand a tweet, engage content without without leaving the app and quickly switch back and forth between accounts.
It offers an experience significantly better than the web, which would involve switching back and forth between tabs and windows, and logging in and out of accounts. More importantly though, it would also be a significantly less tactile, immediate experience than physically moving back and forth between things, things that, as of yet, aren’t widely implemented in browsers. By allowing for customized interfaces, apps create new and intriguing ways to actually interact with the media we experience.
Now, it’s possible in the near future that web apps based on HTML5 would provide a similar experience with multitouch gestures and in-line breakouts and the like. But even still, apps have another benefit. Which brings me to…
Apps Are Frames For Content
Even if web technologies allows for these sorts of customized experiences without resorting to Flash or Silverlight, what apps allow is focus.
Something I keep returning to is a simple statement made by Robin Sloan that apps provide a ‘frame’ for content – something that puts a kind of mental border around content in order to provide a sort of focus.
That’s something that the web is not very good at. The adaptability of browsers can sometimes be as much a curse as a blessing. Sure, right now, the Wired iPad app is a bit disastrous because it doesn’t allow sharing, cutting and pasting and other basic features. But at the same time, it recreates the focus of a print magazine in digital form.
But more than that, sometimes frames are good for creating certain types of content. New versions of the book, for example, benefit from the combination of a multitouch digital display and a focused application because they allow for new ways of telling stories within the same span of attention: within the same ‘frame’ you can listen to a story, or read it, or interact with a game based on the book.
And sometimes, it’s just the simple psychological impact of being ‘within an application’ that helps. That may sound trite, but how we relate to objects psychologically and emotionally is a big deal: go ask anyone who reads a lot whether they want to read a novel on newsprint, or a poem on the back of a cereal box. The forms things take matter, and apps are a new and important digital form for focusing our attention on one thing.
A Focused, Interactive, Personalized Future
Now of course, no-one wants to get rid of the web. I’d argue it will remain the dominant mode of consuming digital content, as it should. It’s open and accessible and as closed technologies like Flash begin to fall, it will only become more so.
But apps allow customized and focused experiences in a way the web browser does not and should not. By putting a frame around ideas and allowing for unique ways on interacting with them, apps have created a new midway-point between the specificity of print and the adaptability of digital. As a result, apps will become another crucial component of our digital ecosystem by allowing us new ways of approaching the text, images and videos that form our media universe.