SOFTWARE ENGINEERING blog & .lessons_learned
manuel aldana
Manuel Aldana

January 26th, 2012 · 1 Comment

The evil path of Mobile-Apps (vs. Webstandards)…

The so called Apps are the usual End-User applications running locally on Smartphones and Tablets (similar to Desktop applications). From usability point and hipness factor they offer great moments. But as a Software Developer I am extremely skeptical… Well, what is wrong with all these Apps?

Step backwards from Web-Standards

I think web-standards like HTML, JavaScript, CSS are key technologies for the Internet. The Webapp-Provider can develop in a very agile way as the application is released on servers and ready to be accessed by Webbrowser. The User on the other hand doesn’t need to install anything, the only “application-gate” is the Webbrowser, simply try out a website, toss it away or revisit. No installation/removal necessary. The URL is your application-hook.
On the Mobile App side big step backwards: I now face the pain that every website has its own app which basically doubles content. I need to go through the annoying search/install/upgrade/removal path to try out things. Instead of keeping simple URL-Bookmarks for several websites the Desktop now is packed with tons of distracting App-Icons and alarming Upgrading Notifications.

High Implementation Effort

On top of your HTML/Javascript based Webapplication and optional HTTP API you need to add effort to more apps. Your whole application setup gets fragmented and increases maintenance and developing efforts to a big extent. Today 2 major platforms exist (Android, iOS) and it seems that Windows Mobile platform will follow. Yes, on the Webapplication side you indirectly also need to support multiple Browsers (Safara, FF, IE, Chrome etc.) but this effort is much less as maintaining desktop-lik Mobile Apps.

App-Store Drawbacks

Smartphone Apps are typically distributed through App-Stores (like Apple’s App-Store or Google’s Android Market). These App-Stores and their review process do have their pros: They act as a single entry point for end-users, which can search/browse and rate apps which is really comfortable. Also the review-process and policies can kind of enforce a style guide which can positively influence usabilty. Besides malicious apps are easier to filter and kick-out from App-Store. On top it seems that users tend to be more willing to pay for certain apps in contrast to pay for a website content, which is good for the App-Providers.

Never the less there are a lot of disadvantages which makes Software Development for Mobile-Apps tough:

Missing/Intransparent Auto-Upgrade

It can happen that your current installed app is inconsistent to the latest released one (I see this through circle icon top-left of app or App-Store icon) and isn’t upgraded on the fly. This causes headaches both on user and App-Provider side. The user is annoyed because he/she need to actively upgrade App-versions all the time and at some point will simply not do it. The App-Provider has to invest a lot of developing and testing resources to make all the backend (like APIs) compatible to very old App-releases as there is no guarantee that very old Apps aren’t “out there” any longer. Down compatiblity and supporting multiple application versions is in my view one of the biggest cost drivers in Software Industry.

Inefficient Packaging

When upgrading an App the whole binary package needs to be downloaded. This is extremely inefficient as usually between releases only a smaller part of App changes (source-code diff). Especially in areas where bandwith isn’t good downloading a 5MB upgrade is a big pain. A more sophisticated packaging build tool which makes binary diffs possible would ease a lot and come hand in hand with an Auto-Upgrade feature. To me it is a mistery why none of current App-Stores have such a feature…

Release/Rollout delay

Due to the app-review process there is a delay between your internal approval of app and the final downloadable app inside App-Store. This usual takes a week but also can take longer (e.g. during peak times when many app-providers are offering new apps or versions at the same time). Thinking of being agile and releasing software often (see Continous Delivery) this is a major drawback. You have to invest much more effort on testing your app-package as major production issues could cause an app being unusable without possibilty to react quickly as major bug fix releases need to go through review process again. In such an error-risk environment changes are done much more defensively and you also will meet all the other disadvantages of NOT RELEASING OFTEN.

Distribution dependency

App-Store owners (Apple, Google) have full control whether an app is available or not. Apple even has policies disallowing apps which are implementing similar functions as preinstalled Apple ones (Email-Client, Webbrowser). You are dependent on the good will on the reviewers. These hard restriction aren’t found for typical Desktop or webapplications. In Desktop case you simply directly a bundled application-package. As webapplication provider you simply rollout you app and let users find you by the “application”-gate the Webbrowser.

Future-Hope

My bet and hope (esp. as a Software Developer) is the HTML 5 standard + Responsive-Web-Design movement. It keeps the highly flexible Webapplication oriented approach and offers a single point for both Desktop Webbrowsers and Mobile devices (frontend is “adapting” to end-device). My gut-feeling is undermined as big web-player Google also seems to go this way, e.g. there are hardly any dedicated Google Mobile Apps rather they try to tackle the Mobile Usability problem directly on the Webapplication side.

Tags: Software Engineering · Technologies/Tools · Uncategorized

1 response

  • 1 Pierre Dalcourt // Feb 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Hi Manuel,

    As a fellow software developper, I totally agree with this post. I certainly think installable apps have some advantages over web apps, but they are outweighed by the advantages of web apps. I do think all the effort should be put into improving web app standards (and web apps themselves) as opposed to building custom apps for each mobile platform which to me seems very inefficient. I keep trying to see things from the highest level: i.e. if I were managing the entire planet, which approach would I pick? The decision would be easy: it would be web apps all the way…

    Pierre

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