Apps are the Future of Web Content, and not just with Phones

Jeremy Pratte
December 08, 2010
Web Development , Web Strategy , User Experience Design

I am usually not one to get out my crystal ball and predict things. Not seriously, anyway. But very rarely something will hit me (“very rarely” here meaning “once”) that make so much profound sense that it’s like an epiphany. It’s like I’m given an actual vision of the future.

Just such a moment happened with me while leaving work one day several months ago. I had been pondering how much smart phone users were getting their content from apps and how much they were getting their content from the phone’s web browser. I asked somebody I know and that person said it was mostly the apps. And then I was thinking about a recipes app I had recently downloaded onto my iPhone and how much more efficiently I was getting recipes from it versus opening up the web browser, Google-searching, or going to recipe sites, searching not only for the best recipe site but searching within them as well. Now I could just open the app, search for a recipe, and get it.

So while I was walking to my car that hot early evening, I thought “Apps are the future of web content!” That alone isn’t especially remarkable if you’re only thinking about phone apps, but when I thought that, I meant all web browsing devices: tablets, laptop and even desktop computers. Not only do I think that, more and more, people will be getting most content from apps on their phones, and less and less the web browsers (even mobile versions of the websites out there), but people will want to have that same quick, customized content delivery when they move to t heir other computing devices. They will get spoiled and want it there, too. And I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t. Further, users will more often demand apps, as they already do. Almost every time I walk into my bank I ask them just when the heck they’re going to have an app available for download.

“But what about Favorites in your web browsers?” some of you might be asking. Wouldn’t that be essentially the same thing because that would be going directly to certain websites, and therefore specific content, you’re seeking? My answer is no, it wouldn’t. With an app, almost all the presentation elements are stored on your device, and maybe even some initial or fallback content, too. So not only would this content delivery method be quicker in terms of going straight to the specific content you’re desiring at that moment, but that content would get to you quicker as well, because the raw content would be all that was being sucked from the internet (and that of course would be mostly text, most of the time). And further than that, it would mostly be only the content you were looking for, as app developers, because of a lack of screen space, are forced to zero in on the most important things the users want and they must prioritize accordingly. This is where design of the content, versus the website, comes into play (which really could be the subject of a different post). Of course if you’re talking about apps on a laptop or tablet, designers and developers have more room to work with, but I feel that if the apps for the phones are made first the apps for the other devices would more or less be similar, and follow the same principles.

“So, what, are you saying that people will someday have millions of apps on their computers instead of using the web browsers?” Well, no, the web browsers will still be used; I do not believe that the apps will completely supplant web browsing, people will still want to surf the web, and not every website would benefit from an app version (CNN and IMDB, yes; a machine shop? Not so much). But I do think people will have maybe thousands of apps on their computers. Or at least hundreds. Users might want to organize them properly, in folders or perhaps use a tagging system, but yes I don’t think having thousands of apps is unreasonable. But that would take up a lot of hard drive space, right? Sure it would, but who cares? There’s more hard drive space out there than most people know what to do with. Even a computer I got over ten years ago, which is now retired, I never quite filled up its massive hard drive (which I kept). You should also consider another trend that others have predicted: computing – like word processing and the like – is moving to the cloud and web apps are supplanting native applications and/or programs installed right on computers, an innovation made possible by the increased usage of high-speed internet. And Google. I’ve heard that even Microsoft is looking to move Office to the cloud.

So with less programs installed on users’ computers, which have more than ample hard drive space to begin with, there will be plenty of room to store apps. And besides, let’s not forget those phones and tablets and how they’re quickly becoming most users’ primary way of accessing the web anyway.

See how it’s all falling into place? It’s the perfect storm for a partial web content takeover by apps. The means, methods, and motivations are there, and so is the money – which I haven’t mentioned yet – as even though most apps are free, the money being made off of paid-for apps gets into the billions of dollars. No, that wasn’t a typo.

If there are still doubters left at this point, I have one more thing to point out: there are signs that my prediction is already coming true. Apple announced in October that the new Macbook Air, their latest notebook computer, is going to have its own app store, similar to the ones for the iPhone and iPad. It should roll out around January, 2011. I expect Microsoft to follow suit.

“Oh no, are you saying we all have to start learning to make apps now?” web developers and designers reading this might ask. Yes, you do. Start learning. No, I don’t mean in a couple of years, or even a couple of months. I’d actually suggest you start right after you finish reading this blog post. I like to end these on high notes usually but, sorry, I’m going to have to end it with bad news (for web designers and developers). Remember the early days of web development before any semblance of standards when your web page might look drastically different between the different browsers, the proprietary HTML tags, and all the begging, pleading, and whining we did about standards adoption? Remember how fun that was? Well, now that we’ve finally arrived at those standards, and now with Internet Explorer 9 we’ve finally achieved near-total CSS3 support, the nightmare begins anew – only worse this time. For it will be difficult, if not impossible in some situations, to avoid having to make a completely different version of the app for each phone platform. To make matters worse, they’re coded in different languages. And, even more worse, often even the designs will have to be different.

Buckle up, web people. It’s going to be another wild ride.

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