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Will Mobile App Platforms Destroy Browser-based Innovations?


Remember the beginning of the computing revolution? When the Internet didn’t exist, and everyone, for the most part, relied on desktop applications (or creating their own programs) to get something done? I do, and it sounds so primitive these days.

But we also remember when the Internet and the Web browser began taking over. Advances in Internet technology and standards significantly improved what was possible online, especially when Google’s online productivity services came into existence. Eventually, the browser became the most important component of most consumer-oriented computer systems, and little else mattered.

It was a freeing advancement for developers and consumers: anyone and everyone could create applications that were accessible by almost anyone with an Internet connection and a browser. It made the choice in operating system irrelevant, put netbook computers at the top, and inspired a slew of Web 2.0 products and services that have propelled the industry forward.

Seems like this type of openness and freedom should last forever, right? Seems logical.

Unfortunately, we are actually headed in the complete opposite direction.

We are now embracing a trend where proprietary mobile platforms are taking over: beginning yet another cycle in computing evolution. On one side you have proprietary systems with rich SDKs and guidelines for creating and distributing content. Yet amazing advancements in Web-based technologies like HTML 5, CSS 3, and WebGL have hinted towards amazingly in-depth applications that rival anything we have ever seen before on the Web browser.

To point out that this sounds like the desktop versus browser all over again would be an understatement — this is exactly what it is!

Smart Phone, Dumb System

We are at the point where we all can have computers in our pockets that can rival the capabilities of desktops and laptops: it’s called the smart phone. But the smart phone got started with all these proprietary components, systems, and applications. It results in a locked-down ecosystem.

These closed platforms create segmentation in the mobile space. It means that developers are beginning to have to pick and choose where they want to play. So instead of developing a single application that is capable of running on all platforms (like a web-based application), developers are forced to choose between Android, iPhone OS, Blackberry OS, webOS, Windows Mobile, Maemo, MeeGo, and who knows what else.

Users are also being forced to pick and choose. This ultimately results in some people getting the applications they want, while others are forced to wait while applications are ported to a different platform, with no guarantee that they will be at all. Also, users invest money in purchasing applications for a specific platform, and lose out on their investments if they decide to switch to a different platform.

It is ridiculous, particularly when considering how open the Web has become.

But it’s all about the money (isn’t it always). Companies are attempting to keep developers and consumers locked into a system of control, where the gatekeeper reaps the money from both consumer and developer. But even worse is that consumers are buying into these closed systems (granted, they haven’t been given much of a choice) while developers flock to where the consumers are in order to make money for their efforts.

The Real Controversy

But the point here is that this is a step backward in innovation for the open web.

Even Google, the company that has been pushing heavily for HTML 5 support, is doing some damage to the open web with the creation of Android. But I understand that Google needed to create Android to compete with the likes of iPhone OS.

That said, it is such a shame to see all this innovation on the Web being swept aside as mobile applications take center stage. While it creates new opportunities for developers to make money from sales of their applications, it comes at the cost of creating barriers. Ones between platforms and between user and developer (like with Apple’s recent habit of blocking applications from entering the App Store).

html css

Ironically, Palm’s webOS — recently acquired by HP — is the closest thing we have to a mobile platform that is heavily integrated with the Web and utilizes Web technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to produce mobile applications for the platform. It is, in a way, the perfect blend between mobile application and mobile Web. But the platform hasn’t taken off (we can blame Palm’s horrible marketing efforts on that one).

But don’t get me wrong: I completely understand that, at this current point in time, we don’t have the cohesion in web technology to produce applications as powerful and interoperable as their dedicated platform counterparts. There still has to be an interface to work with the hardware, and developing Web standards that will enable what is possible today with mobile phones without all the proprietary stuff in between will be quite difficult.

Yet there is no denying that it is a step backwards for browser-based innovation — it’s only a question of how big that step is and how far these companies are willing to go to maintain a controlled ecosystem of consumer and developer.

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