Open vs. Closed Apps

I confess. I love the iPhone. I’ve spent some time with the iPad and I love that too. These devices provide great access and consumption to large chunks of media on the web. I no longer need to use my laptop to communicate through email and social networks or consume audio/video. Most websites I’m interested in can be viewed on the iPhone. So what’s missing?

I’m most certainly a prosumer. Ever since I started using computers in the 90s I’ve used them to make things (art and music). I’m currently typing this post in the iPhone notepad app and it feels very primitive to me. But I don’t doubt I could go to the app store and find dozens of Apps to help along my typing. These Apps are subject to the approval of Apple. If anything in the app is deemed unfavorable by Apple (usually due to bad coding) it will probably not be approved. iOS is a closed system as opposed to an open system. On an Open system like my computer running Apple’s OSX I can install any type of software I like from wherever.

The AppStore has been a brilliant way for Apple and developers to charge money for software (often at appealingly low prices). But the problem for developers is that they often commit to limiting their market (or it’s extra dev time and maintenance to get the app working on other mobile platforms). I confess I’ve never written a mobile App so I may not be credible to talk about Apps yet. I have built my share of web sites on the good old open www with it’s seemingly boundless possibilities. I can’t help but think the app revolution could be short-lived.

The most useful apps I have are ones that continue to work regardless of whether I’m online or not. These include music creation apps and even the NYT app which holds the entire day’s news (and more I suspect) in the iPhone memory until it finds a new online connection and updates with new stories. This is the good old fashioned use of software. Usually a tool to help you get things done. But there are severe limitations. The iPhone has very limited memory and storage capacity. You theoretically could use an app to do intense high res photo imaging but you would soon use up all the resources your device can muster and ultimately fail in accomplishing a task which most computers can easily complete. This is a brick wall for mobile. Amazing technology that is difficult to harness for most CPU intensive work. This is not to dismiss mobile or touch. But perhaps we do need to think about dismissing closed apps.

With the advent of Html5 and The Cloud everything I just described previously can be accomplished on the good old www but with the added benefit of scalable capacities (meaning you can allocate the processing power and storage space as you need it). A major benefit is that these web apps are device agnostic. You can do said task on a Mac, Windows, Android or iOS and certainly many others as long as the device is running the latest browser.

There are many obstacles facing this transformative technology. Browser companies won’t agree on standards for html5 because of their own media economic interests. But even so great strides have been made this year. Perhaps the biggest and most obvious obstacle is Internet connectivity.

For the open web App utopia to completely overtake closed apps in a mobile context we will need to achieve connectivity at all times. 3G/4g are steps in that direction. If that is how 100% connectivity becomes a reality it must be able to support the data load of wifi. Preferably, if wifi reached 100% global saturation we could put to rest phone plans altogether. Perhaps too much to dream for with current technologies. I write this from the road in Brasil unable to access wifi and unwilling to pay high 3g data fees that would enable me to access my WordPress database to post this in real-time.

If 100% high speed web connectivity can be achieved, with the convergence of a ratified Html5 standard harnessing the processing power and storage capacity of The Cloud the open web app can become the dominant method of mobile computing and the closed web app system will have been a necessary phase whose time has passed for the mobile web. I believe the economics of this open web app world are better. The premium is no longer ownership of software product but simply access to that product (think premium cable channel subscriptions). One can envision software farms that provide access to lots of software for reasonable subscription fees (think Netflix). One thing the closed app system has pioneered is the very reasonable cost for apps (music industry could take notes: an app is usually much more valuable to me than a song yet they usually cost the same…but I digress).

I’d intended to write about the brilliant closed system Apple has created for us with IOS but in focusing on web apps I found a solution to that problem. No doubt they could better optimize iOS for web apps if they come around to believing that web apps will overtake closed apps.

Almost everything I’ve described is already happening right now. Hopefully I’ve made a good case for why open systems are better than closed and will dominate the very near future.

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