Web! Apps! Fight!

Reading time: 4 mins

It’s apparently Web Hunting Season again, as there has recently been a new flurry of ‘web vs apps’ viewpoints emerging; tweets sparking more tweets, blogs sparking more blogs.

I have read and enjoyed many of the opinions, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. Just now I happened to see a new post by Jeremy Keith – someone whose views I find myself nodding along to more often than not – who links to some of the best recent articles on this subject and provides his own thoughts. Jeremy’s site doesn’t accept direct comments, and I headed to twitter to tap out a carefully considered, character-restricted response, but instead I decided to contribute to the noise and to throw a quick blog post out there in the name of owning my own content.

CD-ROMs and gated content

One of Jeremy’s comparisons is an analogy between apps and CD-ROMs. I like this. I’d never thought of it in this way before, but it works well. Let’s take this and run with it.

One of the other posts, Peter-Paul Koch’s “Web vs native: let’s concede defeat” raises some good points, but had one massive flaw for me:

I feel that our desire to take on native heads-on has given rise to unnecessarily complex toolchains that slow down what could be simple websites. I’m especially thinking of struggling news sites here, and will argue below that they should go native all the way and forget about the web.

I’m really glad that someone obviously brought up an important point, as that statement is later caveated with:

Update: An excellent counter-argument just came in: news sites need URLs. Very valid point. Requires more thought.

The above counter-argument is exactly my stance on the matter.

Whenever a debate between web and apps arises, I’m drawn to one central test: sharing. Will I want others to see some content? Would I want to be referred to it if I hadn’t seen it? If the answer(s) are yes, then for me it needs the openness that the web affords us somewhere in the mix.

It’s not about technology, performance and APIs – it’s about people.

Depending on the circumstances this content may also reside within an app (and building service-led approaches where we have flexibility around exposing our content to whatever consumption methods are most appropriate is something that I also believe is important), however if the content has value to others outside individuals then the web is key. News stories are a prime example of shared content, and as such I do not believe that an exclusively app-based approach will ever work for news, no matter how well performing or feature-led the app may be. All of the other considerations around approach should absolutely still be explored as part of technical decision making, but for me access to content is fundamental.

This is for me / this is for everyone

If we go back to the CD-ROM – if I dust off and load up my copy of Encarta, read some interesting facts about otters and want to share them with my friends, I then have to physically give them my copy of the CD-ROM, or they have to go out and buy Encarta for themselves. Outside of this, their computers may not be able to play discs due to hardware or software constraints, or there may be too many hurdles for them to bother continuing. The content sharing journey is broken. Many won’t ever see my otter facts. Sad times indeed.

Apps on the whole are an individual experience – you seek, you download, you interact. If you share app-based content outside of the pre-existing bubble of the app network, you trigger this behavior for another individual. In comparison, the web is seamless for content sharing (or should be…).

However, what I’m not saying here is that it’s all or nothing. Indeed, if device APIs are crucial to a particular user interaction, and their use will allow this to happen best, then go ahead and facilitate this interaction through an app. The resulting content however – don’t restrict this exclusively to your app. There’s probably nothing stopping you from sharing it on the web.

As Jeremy puts it:

A single native app will “beat” a single website every time …but an app store pales when compared to the incredible reach and scope of the entire World Wide Web.

Basically… what he said.