Outside of certain circles, the notion of desktop computing applications is probably one of the most boring possible avenues of discussion you could pursue in polite company (witness: Your eyes glazing over, already). It is true that we all use them, almost all-day everyday, but they are utterly unglamorous – clunky, even, to use an expression.

Contrast “apps” – and with it all that the name implies. They’re sexy, they’re contemporary, they’re pushing boundaries – despite actually being the exact same thing. The only obvious difference is that the former tends to run on a desktop computer, the latter on a mobile device, and one has four letters instead of three words.

Naturally, the obvious differences aren’t the real differences at all. Presented for your consideration today, a brief examination of what makes an app an app, and distinctly not a desktop application, nor a mobile website for that matter (and this is by far a more compelling examination).

The difference: While a desktop application, a mobile website, and an app each express the ability to collect, assess, and provide information, only the app implies the ability to do so with a small but crucial package of features, consistently. These are the “ingredients” that allow developers to bake this new generation of apps.

To expand on my cooking metaphor momentarily, let us examine some core flavor groups, upon which all delicious creations known to man are built: Salty, Sweet, Savory, Bitter, Acidic. None of these are flavors we consume directly, but combined they produce all the flavors and smells we know and love.

An equivalent if hardly comprehensive list of core features in an “app”: Location awareness, position awareness, portability, camera, microphone, touch interface, network connection.

Each of these components has existed in desktop applications prior to mobile apps. Some desktop computers can discern their physical location and have a microphone. Others have a network connection and a touch interface. You can build good software without using each and every piece every time– but the point is that when a developer goes to write an app, she knows that these components are always safe to draw from, and, assuming the recipe is written and the proportions correct, that it will taste work exactly as expected — regardless of where and when the recipe is actually mixed up and eaten.

If an iPhone app needs to know where it is, it will be told. If it needs to know what angle its sitting at, or if its being shaken, it can ask. If it needs to capture audio or request a bit of information from the internet, it can – a developer is not left wondering if the app will have the ability to do everything it was conceived to do when a user actually gets around to running it. And that’s what makes an app an app.

I would further add that, from a designer’s perspective (and remembering that design matters), an additional core ingredient is the display – that it be consistent in resolution, in aspect ration, and basic color balance. Colors may very slightly from one model of iPhone to the next, but no one is running their iPhone with a green-and-black tube display.

Now that you understand the difference, let’s examine the implications:

First, the web. There was a time when I would have thought that the web would eventually render traditional print media dead, and it certainly has changed things. But going on 15 years, designers still grapple with the subtle variances of one browser to the next, not to mention plug-ins, screen resolutions, pop-up windows – in essence, a designer on the web has the ability to dictate very little beyond the bounds of their own page displayed in a frame. A user’s attention can easily be grabbed by something popping up – from another browser window, or another application. There is no assurance that the content that was intended to be taken in in one gaze won’t be spread across multiple screens, requiring scrolling by the user. In essence, there is little control – and this is long before considering our shared set of functionalities, so crucial to apps.

The web promised us a new media platform, and it did deliver – but in some ways (specifically design) the platform it delivered was inferior to what we already had in print magazines and books. I believe that things such as e-learning and reading for pleasure specifically did not take off on the web in ways that they could have, and the reasons for this are as described. The desktop computing environment is layers upon layers of task-oriented interface. To gain focus from readers, content must be presented in such a way that it garners focus from the human brain – this requires controlled design – and multi-windowed and multi-tasking computers cannot reconcile that.

If iOS apps generally embody the characteristics I describe, Android apps actually fall somewhere in the middle.

As a developer, it is safer to assume that an Android device will provide support for one of my included flavors/functionalities in an app (location, camera) than for a traditional web or application developer to make such assumptions. But when the question is raised at all (safer not being the desired absolute – “safe”), the platform is then diminished back into the world of web land – whereby standards change across devices, across versions of the OS, etc. Even the very method by which Android implements multi-tasking is more representative of traditional desktop multi-tasking (that is, not lending itself to focus on the foremost content by the user) than Apple’s is. If the web has failed us in this way, how and where does an Android differentiate itself from a dynamic web application?

Given broader future support for persistent data store and browser graphics, what makes a web app on Android any different from a compiled and installed app? The shared features may or may not exist on any given Android device, just as the currently do and do not exist on internet-connected computers.

The closed platform, distribution concerns, and malware debates are discussions for another time. I do think they’re important, and I think it’s an interesting space to watch. As a general observation, I feel that Apple’s app store will move more and more into a spirit of openness (I think they are moving very cautiously), and that Google’s will infact move in the opposite direction – toward a more refined and more controlled space. Both will land closer to the middle than they currently are, though Apple’s may always remain regarded as the more controlled of the two.

I wouldn’t argue that the Apple app model is the only way, and a world with Apple dictating all specs for all smart-phones on the market is not one I want to live in. Personally, as I’ve stated before, I’d love for someone else to come along and provide a compelling alternative (it needs to be designed really well), that can be compared and argued against both iOS and Android – but one has not, yet, and until it does, I’ll continue to argue that Apple’s app implementation is unique, and that it is currently the place to be for developers and consumers.


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