The tug between browsers and apps for your clickstream

When you need something online, is your first impulse to bring up your Web browser or go to your smartphone and run an app? The Web/app balance has shifted perhaps permanently in the app’s favor, meaning that more and more we go to an app when we need something online, and streaming video is accelerating this shift. For those of us that were old enough to remember when Netscape and AOL were different companies, I think this is a sad development.

Certainly, it depends on how often you access a particular site: for daily habits, having an app makes sense, if the app encapsulates the kind of browsing experience that you normally would be doing with your PC. But apps are more than just better bookmarks (remember them?), and indeed they have taken off as true alternatives to general browsing.

In this month’s issue, Wired magazine has declared that the Web is dead. They cite stats that show the venerable HTTP protocol is in decline, in favor of peer-to-peer and other specialty apps. Apps certainly are very appealing: you can have the Internet right now, in your pocket, without having to boot up your PC’s browser or find a Wifi hotspot.

But the rise of apps has some problems, including that they are less capable, don’t work the same across all smartphones, can cost money to download and are less usable than the general-purpose browser-based Web.

Take a look at Urbanspoon.com, a great Web site that lists local restaurants, reviews, menus, and more. The iPhone app is miserable, and on a recent test when a client and I were out for dinner in Mountain View, it took us less time to walk up and down the Castro strip than bring up and fool around with the app on either of our phones.

And just about any newspaper app has its limitations, just because everyone reads their favorite paper differently. The NY Times iPad app, for example, does a nice job for top-level articles, but if you want to get deeper, you will be frustrated and move to their Web site for additional reading.

Certainly there are counter-examples: Facebook’s app has more functionality at the moment with its geo-locator Places feature, which isn’t found on its traditional Web site. But that is just an anomaly. Most of Facebook’s functionality still requires a full browser. And there are dozens of Twitter apps that are more capable than their desktop cousins.

When it comes to finding an app, you have a sad collection of app stores, other than Apple’s, to try to discover them. Several of the stores, such as the Android Marketplace, make searching miserable. The stores classify their apps into such broad categories that you spend too much time scrolling around the results. Or else they force you to use the in-phone store versions to do the searching. Apple forces you to use iTunes, but at least you can look for your apps on your desktop and not suffer the tiny phone screen. Ironically, the more apps that are created for the store, the harder it is to find them, particularly if you are trying to use your phone to track them down. (You can read more about what I think make for a great app store experience here.)

Compounding things is that once you download an app to your phone, you have to maintain it just like any other piece of software in your life. There are always dozens of app updates awaiting me, and some days it seems that my social media maintenance is my major job: the time to check my LinkedFaceTwit status updates, approve or ignore friend requests, update my apps, promote my articles on Digg and StumbleUpon, add links to my blog (blogs? Remember them? They seem so last year.) and so forth can take a big chunk of time out of my day.

I blame a lot of this on video streaming to our phones. Part of the problem with video is the huge bandwidth consumed, but part is an overlay of conflicting video standards, formats, rights management, and other issues that just make it a mess. Still, an app like Major League Baseball’s AtBat 2010 is a thing of beauty to watch ballgames on your phone, except you can’t watch all games on all phones yet.

And while you have the ability to watch many broadcast TV shows inside your browser thanks to Hulu and Netflix On-demand, it can take some effort to find them too. Would my Roku be better off with a real built-in browser that I could use to display Web videos on my living room TV? Yes. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of its apps (they call them channels) that I have to install and navigate instead. More maintenance time.

What are your thoughts on the app/browser divide? Please share with me here.

5 thoughts on “The tug between browsers and apps for your clickstream

  1. I read a good part of the Wired essays explaining why the web is dead (i.e., the use of the http: protocol). I can appreciate the seductive nature of apps. They are easy and intuitive to use. Hmm, shouldn’t that be the goal of all software, browsers and the like?

    We’re still early in the adoption of mobile apps. They will improve in time and provide a deeper, richer experience IMO. I hope they will not fragment the web into new ghettos (for phones, for tv’s, for tablets, etc.).

    I can see the huge influence of video, but don’t quite understand how you feel it fits into (or doesn’t fit into) the app vs. browser battlefield. Are you saying the video is presently an anarchic element without standards that is pushing the drive toward apps? Or are you suggesting that today’s apps will merge with and subsume the channels on our televisions? Will tv’s become the default interface for the masses who will eschew computers and smartphones?

    • Actually, I would say yes to all three of your questions. The anarchy around video standards is making people download apps to view them, like MLB.tv as one example. And as the apps get better or popular or both, they will replace ordinary TV watching as people can get the video content they want without having to stay home, or in some cases instead of watching in their living room or home TVs. And as the TV becomes more Internet-capable, you don’t need an attached PC to display more online content. Thanks for your comment.

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