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On July 10, 2008, Apple launched a digital distribution platform that proved to be a harbinger of tremendous change for how users engage the Internet. In addition to popularizing the word “app” as a shorthand term meaning “application software,” the Apple App Store offered its userbase an integrated repository of services for utilizing Internet resources. Just a little more than seven years old, the App Store has seen more than 100 billion downloads of its 1.4 million available apps. Other similar software curating services, such as Google Play and the Amazon App Store, have emerged to further establish a veritable “app economy” that represents billions of dollars in revenues for developers the world over.
For users of mobile computing devices such as smartphones and tablets, apps are the de facto method for optimizing Internet utility, given the size and input limitations that are incumbent with such devices. The fact that apps ride around on devices that we carry with us almost everywhere we go gives them a unique ability to be useful in a number of everyday situations. We utilize apps to give us driving directions, manage email and calendars, store coupons, track activity, pay bills and more. According to a recent survey, more than 80% of mobile Internet use is performed through specialized apps rather than a browser.
Clearly, this represents a significant change in how people access Internet resources. However, while the benefits are considerable, the shift comes with some drawbacks. When a browser was the near-exclusive interface for online activity, switching from one platform to another did not necessarily involve a lot of reinstalling and reconfiguring. Assuming both browsers were up-to-date, there was a seamless experience from one platform to another. Now that individual apps are used for specialized purposes, transitioning across platforms can be a more of a hassle, particularly as some apps must be re-purchased or downloaded to work on a new platform.
The challenges of the app economy are not borne by the users alone; developers have to make difficult decisions as well. Since time and effort has to go into customizing apps to work on different mobile platforms, most developers find that they can only justify focusing on one or two. Those platforms that fail to attract developers will consequently fail to attract users because of the limited apps that might be available. This may prove to be an unfortunate cycle for platforms with less critical mass, as developers are forced to make tough development choices.
International standards advocacy and education group World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is addressing the issue through its participation in Open Web Platform, a new app environment that focuses on web apps. The idea behind web apps it to couple the relative platform independency of a browser with the power and mobile-friendliness of an app. With web apps, a developer could deliver the advanced features of a more conventional app to all platforms in a single deployment.
This method of app development would allow for greater interoperability and further reduce barriers to entry for both app developers and mobile platforms. Two users on different mobile operating systems could cooperate with one another all while being assured of comparable software experiences. The advancement of web app model could be another important transition in Internet usage and a huge step forward for open standards.
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