Are Apps the New Websites?

Mike Halsey MVP
Mar 13, 2011
Updated • Dec 2, 2012
Apps, Internet

I've written a lot about tablets over the last few months and indeed I now own a Windows 7 tablet myself, the ExoPC Slate.  It didn't take much use of this device to become disillusioned with the modern web as it stands today and I can't help but wonder if the future of the web lies, not in the websites themselves, but in apps that are designed to work with web-based back-end systems.  Let me explain.

For all of you out there who have used an iPad or an Android tablet you'll be loving the finger-friendliness of the operating system.  People such as myself, using Windows 7 on a tablet are at a disadvantage.  Even Windows 7's touch interface looks good though when you compare it to the average websites we visit.  This is because, small as they are, the buttons in Windows are still larger and easier to press than links or buttons on almost all websites.

The difference for iPad and Android users, who have extremely touch-friendly interfaces, will be even more pronounced when they start navigating around websites.  You can zoom in and out of websites using multi-touch, I can do this in IE9 too on the ExoPC, but why do we want to be constantly zooming into, out of and around websites when instead we should be just using websites that work?

The problem as it stands is that while the overall market for tablets and smartphones in Internet usage is growing exponentially, it's still extremely small compared to the usage figures seen on desktop computer systems such as PCs, Macs and even GNU/Linux systems.

Then there are the development costs incurred by businesses in making their websites touch friendly.  You can almost immediately discount drop down menus, multi-choice options of any kind in fact become problematic.  Text links, which still make up 90%+ of website navigation controls, are the biggest culprit, being placed too close together and too close to other clickable items to be of any use for touch control.

There is absolutely no sign yet though that web developers are looking to update these websites to make them ready for the boost in touch access that will occur in the next few years.  Instead we see the main websites including Amazon, eBay, Gmail, Twitter and Facebook all putting their money into mobile apps.  There has been a huge flurry of activity here in the last year with all the main platforms having apps developed for them at significant expense.

This makes sense to a certain degree as apps can be faster than websites and the user interfaces can be far friendlier.  These apps are now able to do things that the traditional websites have never been able to achieve.

Now though the current crop of Browsers, which will be complete with the formal release of Internet Explorer 9 tomorrow, all support HTML5 which allows for much greater flexibility and control over websites, and which also enables websites to look and behave far more like the apps that have followed them.

While it's an easy sell though for companies to devote time and money to platforms such as iOS, Android and Windows Phone for app development, which in the grand scheme of things have user figures in the low 10's of percent of overall web users, redeveloping their websites to support HTML5 when few people have the latest browsers is a much harder proposition to accept.

This is because when you develop an app, you will know that every single person who owns that platform will be able to access it even if that number is relatively small, say just a few million.  With three billion people online around the world though and with regular visitor numbers in the hundreds of millions for the big websites, it's an expensive gamble to spend time currently developing an HTML5 version of your website that will support touch, or even multi-touch, knowing that this will only be seen or used by around 1 or 2% of your overall user base.

This gives people using the iPad and Android devices a significant advantage over Windows tablet, PC or Mac users.  If the rumours of a multi-touch Mac this year are true this will compound the issue even more.

This all leads me to wonder if the future of the web doesn't lie in the websites themselves but rather in software, that is more powerful, more flexible and more visible to users.  We could instead find that while existing websites are maintained, any future updates will be merely include finger-friendly links to appropriate apps.

The advantages here are that apps are more secure, provide better functionality and with an app store already available for the Mac and one due next year for Windows, everywhere.  From a marketing standpoint an app also gives you a permanent advert, via an icon, on the user's screen.  This is something that websites currently can't do (we can discount IE9's ability to pin apps to the Windows 7 taskbar as something that will be used by small numbers of users only).

So while companies will still have to maintain back-end web systems, we could find that the future of the web is in front-end apps rather than the websites themselves.  I would say this is a good future and one to welcome.  It will be interesting to see which way the big companies decide to jump.


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  1. jon silverton said on March 13, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    My company has several apps and more than one thousand people per day are using them over the website. I can see things moving in this direction but still have trouble understanding why Microsoft is so far behind with their apps. You have made some very good points by the way.

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