Archive for December 25th, 2010

The Thinker

An app’s not an app, for all of that

Christmas often brings a new gadget or two under my tree. This Christmas brought me an Amazon Kindle e-book reader, courtesy of my spouse. While I work my way to the conclusion of my paper-bound tome of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, I already know that it would be an easier book to read at night in bed on my Kindle.

I have not yet succumbed to the smartphone mania, although I have played with the smartphones of others. I find them neat devices, at least when the wireless spectrum is not too crowded. Arguably, there would be times in my telephone-minimized life when one of these gizmos would prove useful. It would work as a great GPS, and I wouldn’t have to pay $70 to Garmin to get updated maps. I might find it convenient to answer email while mobile, although I have avoided Blackberries specifically so I do not raise the expectation with my boss that I should always be electronically accessible.

Smartphones seem to be much more about the Internet than about the telephone, and generally to do something useful with them you must download an “app” (application), many of which you must purchase. These apps are proving a boon to software developers, who need to pay bills.

I have been following Google’s Chrome for a while now. Many of us are aware of the Google Chrome browser, and it seems to be gaining market share at a fast pace. It is already clearly the number three browser, and most of its share of the browser market is coming at the expense of Internet Explorer. It’s important to distinguish between the Google Chrome Browser and Google Chrome OS, which is a lightweight operating system. Chrome OS is starting to come out of the labs and will soon be embedded into devices like notebook computers. The Chrome browser is available for a number of operating systems.

Just to make things more confusing, Chrome OS is a distinct operating system from Android, Google’s operating system for smartphones. As many of you know who own smartphones, Android and Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS own much of this market. Arguably, BlackBerry OS is the granddaddy in this market, although its devices have traditionally been focused around email. Microsoft as usual is trying to play catch up, and is currently rolling out Microsoft Phone 7 as its smartphone operating system, apparently deciding to give Microsoft Mobile the towel.

For smartphones, apps are a near necessity. Given the small screen size, you should not mind paying for clever apps that make the most of your smartphone. After all, if your smartphone had enough resolution to be a desktop computer, you would not be installing apps. You would surf to your favorite sites instead.

Or would you? The browser makers are now busy standing up app stores. Browsers like Firefox have a proud tradition of user written free extensions that add functionality to the browser. Many of these extensions are being remarketed as “apps” in Mozilla’s soon to be released application store. Arguably, a browser extension is not the same thing as an application. An extension, as the name implies, extends the functionality of the browser. An application, at least in theory, can live separately from the browser. You should not have to run the browser in order to run the app.

Rather, these apps depend on one or more frameworks. Ideally, an app will depend directly on the operating system to handle the messy things that operating systems do. They may also depend on the framework provided by the browser. Mozilla Firefox, for example, is a browser that works on multiple operating systems. Under its hood is a framework that application developers can build on top of that works regardless of your operating system.

By definition, you need to have your browser running in order to run these browser extensions. With apps, it is no longer required. It may be possible to write an app that uses the browser’s framework without needing the browser to actually display anything. Or an app can be written directly for the operating system. Just as Microsoft Word is written to work with Microsoft Windows, Chrome apps are starting to appear that will work directly with Chrome OS.

All this background is necessary to understand where this is leading. Mobile-friendly operating systems in particular are making browsers less important as independently running apps provide a richer experience. This trend is now bleeding over into desktop and laptop computers and endangering the browser and the world wide web.

So why did Google create its own browser called Chrome in the first place? Could they really create a better browsing experience than, say, Mozilla Firefox? Perhaps, but differences in the usability of browsers in general are becoming irrelevant. Some are marginally faster or slower or offer better or fewer features. The Chrome browser is being marketed so heavily that it is hoped that you will accept it and get used to it. With Google products like GMail and Google Docs, you will also get used to having your electronic life “in the cloud” rather than on your personal device. Eventually you may replace your Windows or Mac machine with a lightweight device running Google Chrome OS. When you will do, you will be encouraged to install various apps, many for free, many for money, to do things the snazzy Google Chrome browser cannot do. (This may not be readily apparent if the apps live inside of the Chrome browser, but the effect will be true nonetheless.)

This will in turn tie you closer to Google, its software services and monetize a stream of money toward Google and third party developers, all through apps provided in its store. The result is that you will end up paying more to get content, much of which used to be free. In addition, the browsing experience may be less valuable, as service providers like Amazon spend more of their time and money tuning content to work with applications rather than a browser. If an app takes off the way other viral software did, say, like Visicalc did in the early 1980s, the only way to get content may be through the authorized app, rather than through a browser.

The World Wide Web as we have known it may be ending, as content moves toward being used through apps rather than a browser. The companies that succeed in the apps market hope to be richly rewarded. The Internet, as a neutral platform for acquiring information, may be less useful or, in time, disappear into marginal relevance. Instead, you will need an app to do it. You may find, for example, that to make your flight reservation with Southwest, you must use its authorized app, for which they may charge you a $10 a year annual fee.

Think twice before paying for an app or buying a device running Google’s Chrome OS. You may be locking yourself into proprietary networks, thus balkanizing an Internet where open accessibility has been its strongest feature. My new fancy Amazon Kindle is locked into Amazon’s network. Now I can buy any eBook I want, as long as it is in Kindle format, and therefore as long as I buy it only from Amazon. (Note: Kindles also can show PDF documents, but they are not as easy to read as an eBook.)

 

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