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The Web is for Apps

2021-10-07 - Kristoffer Fredriksson

From time to time there’s a discussion about what the web is for, it’s an absolutely ridiculous debate.

The core of the argument goes something like this: “The web is for documents, everything else should be an app” where “documents” means non-interactive multimedia, and apps are downloaded and installed applications.

Right out of the gate that argument is demonstrably false, there are plenty of apps that are web first. I’m currently writing this in a Google Document, using my browser. Once I’m happy with it I’ll use the same browser to log in to our WordPress set-up where I’ll do the layout and publish it. Just for the sake of driving home the ridiculousness of the claim that the web can’t be for apps, I’ll download a high res image from UnSplash, then I’ll do some edits in Photopea and cap it off by reducing the file size in Squoosh. What I’m saying is that the web is already used for professional applications, and has been for many, many years.

It’s impossible to even estimate how many millions of people that use browser based apps every day for their work. I can’t even begin to guess at how many tools there are. Jira, Google Meet, basically all seo tools, most cms, time reporting, analytics tools, AWS dashboards, Microsoft 360, and so on, and so forth. To claim that the web can’t be used for apps is to be wilfully ignorant.

Yeah, but I ment phone-apps.

Is the standard counter argument to that. To which I say, if a tired PC from twenty years ago could handle professional apps in a browser, trust me, so can a modern phone.

But they look like janky garbage.

Some do, few get the tlc and/or budget of a native app though. Plus there’s a weird corrupted mindset with regards to some websites. Imagine if the first thing an app did was open a banner saying “Hey, go to our website instead!” you’d hate that too. The problem is in the execution, not the platform… or well. See next argument

But I can’t get push - notification - badges - longpress- menu - background - update - system -share!

On android you can. On ios you can’t. Because Apple are holding back the mobile web, because they can’t compete on a level playing field. Not when it comes to payments, not when it comes to streaming music, and not when it comes to browser engines. If they could, they wouldn’t have to rely on the fact that they own the platform all the time.

I’m not saying that Apple are holding the web back because of the 30% tax they can extract from developers, although I do think that is a part of the reason. I believe they truly think themselves to be the arbiters of what is a good user experience, and what isn’t. I think they feel entitled to setting rules, and punishing those that don’t behave.

Gatekeeping

I kept wondering what annoyed me so much about this “debate”, and I’ve finally realized it’s the smug, elitist, gatekeeping that the “The web is for documents…” crowd lean into with such joy. I hear strong echoes of the “those are not real gamers” skreeds from GamerGaters not that long ago. “Your app isn’t good enough unless it meets my standard for what an app should be”. That in turn shows a lack of historic understanding.

Apps are Flash

Not too long ago Flash was the bee's knees. Every new movie that came out, every new car model that launched, even small independent artisans, wanted a FLASH SITE! With a FLASH INTRO! The reason was that the web looked like hot garbage, and was static as a … document. Things took forever to load and lacked interaction. The way things rendered varied a lot from browser to browser.

Then came flash and you had vectors, fonts and ANIMATIONS, right at your fingertips. You knew what your site would look like, and how it would behave. You could make loading animations, and the vectors actually cut back on file sizes if used sensibly. Flash was fun, Flash made the web fun. But Flash didn’t work on phones much, and not at all on iPhones when they eventually launched.

Cue, the app. The app set out to deal with the very same problems as Flash, low bandwidth and weak processors. Animations were added to hide how long it took to start the camera, apps were downloaded in advance because streaming the graphic assets for the virtual beer glass app would take forever, and you didn’t run more than one app at a time to protect the processor.

It took a while for html5 to catch up with Flash, and it has taken a while for the web to catch up with apps. But it has.

The gatekeeping that’s going on is hurting innovation, businesses, and (as with all gatekeeping) the disadvantaged. Twice in a year I got to see bewilderment turn into disappointment, as I told budding entrepreneurs that “Then Apple and Google will take 30% of everything you make.” Their business plans collapsed because two of the richest companies in the world wanted their rent. In both cases a pwa had been more than sufficient on android, and practically useless on ios. The native app would add nothing over the pwa, the app store would add nothing. Secure, hasslefree payments on the web is a solved problem, and putting your app in a store does not lead to instant success.

Massive. Paradigm. Shift.

Last year something big happened. A company that has had a market leading app for visual and/or interface designers wrote a 1200 word blog post defending their choice to go the naticve macos route. The reason for their defensive stance was that a new competitor was eating up market shares at a blistering pace. One of the reasons why this new competitor could grow at such a rapid pace was that their app was web first. No installs, no downloads, no exclusionary platform demands. The competitor was just a click on a link away, on macs, PCs, Linux machines, Chromebooks etc.

Today, a year later, the incumbent is quick to point out that finished prototypes can be shared via the web, in any browser on any platform. As they should, because the alternative belongs to a different era. An entire professional field has moved from “We only support the mac”, to “Only supporting the mac is fine, trust us!”, to “Well parts of our tool works everywhere!”. The future isn’t “one device, one os”; the future is fluid, diverse, and dynamic.

We no longer have to argue about whether or not going “web first” for apps will become important. It already is.

Ignore it at your own risk.

tl;dr

  • Professional apps running in browsers are so common that people don’t even think about it. And they have been since the turn of the millennium. 
  • Gatekeeping is not an argument.
  • Sweating the details for one platform, whilst ignoring the rest is a bad move