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For a while now, I’ve been going back and forth on the current App-madness that continues to rage in the emerging tech space. It has infected everything. First phones, then tablets and now TVs. Professionally speaking, I’m squarely situated in the center of it and have worked on them (who hasn’t at this point?) as well as downloaded, used, enjoyed and hated them on multiple platforms. Ever since Apple created enough object fetishism and cultural esteem in their products, the masses are overwhelmingly accepting of Apple’s heavy handed control of any and everything that can ‘legally’ be put on their device. The only loophole, the single beam of hopeful light is the browser’s ability to access the web. Fortunately, the internet is still not under Apple’s Machiavellian ‘guidance’ but I’ll say that in a low whisper in case big brother is listening.

My intention however is not to post a diatribe against Apple. In fact, Apple is not alone in this practice. Every emergent OS followed suit and created a store/market/whatever where end users and developers alike are wrangled into a proprietary and unavoidable little niche of the digital landscape. Why wouldn’t they? Given Apple’s success with iTunes and the App Store it’s been a tried and true strategy that has been copied by the likes of Google and Palm with their mobile OSes in hopes of fostering the same sort of brand eco-system and ultimately consumer loyalty (i.e. big money). This post is not against Apple alone, but I will heap my comments upon them as they started this whole mess.

Apps tend to break down into three main types – games, productivity, and consumption (such as shopping, news feeds, streaming media, etc). A good case can be made for developing the first two categories as native applications and are generally what we’re familiar with when we think of software on our computers. The third category on the other hand has typically been the purview of websites. Amazon.com, nytimes.com, youtube.com and all the other websites we’re used to browsing are all undergoing this alchemic transmutation into Apps. Why?

Some proponents will argue that having a presence in the “App Store” – which by the way, Apple has claimed is a trademarked nomenclature – and a shiny icon are reason enough. From a brand perspective, they want to represent. Others will cite that the speed of native Apps makes a noticeable difference in the experience. I find these reasons to be uninspired at best and at worst contributing to the App mentality. According to Wikipedia, there are at least 225,000+ third party applications officially available on the App Store. With an ever growing number it seems like irrelevancy is a more likely outcome, particularly if as a company, you already have a loyal web based audience.

I think that a viable case can be made for most games and productivity applications to remain as is, so they are excused, but all of the applications in the third category keep bugging me. This third category of media consumption and consumer behavior has no business being an application. It makes no little for consumers and no sense for creators. With the technologies that are currently out on the web (even excluding Flash – thanks again Apple) we as creators are more than capable of doing so very very much without an App. Why would any company make an App that repurposes their website rather than creating a mobile version of their site?

A competent mobile version of any consumption based website allows the content/product providers to break free of the Apple imposed App shackles. The web and web browsers are still free. Unless your business is flash based there is every reason to create a mobile website versus a mobile application. All the benefits of a website versus all the downfalls of a native application. There are no device limitations. No percentage of sales owed to Apple. On the web, it doesn’t matter if your customers are browsing from an iPhone, a Nexus One, or a Pre. Your site just works. Not only does it work, but if users are already existing customers, then they already have an account, login and preferences. From a development perspective, websites are updated immediately across all users instead of being dependent on users to download updates and maintain the App themselves. Small improvements in real time are quick and easy. No need to depend on long development cycles and incremental releases that your users may or may not install.

So with all that in mind, why the hell did Apps become so damn cool? Well, they were new, right? Consumers and marketers alike flock to new things. Particularly when those new things come from Apple. But, surprise! They’re not new. The reality is that “Apps” is short for applications, a.k.a. software. Yes that stuff we’ve been buying and installing on our computers forever. Now you may say, of course I know that. But just the same, the world at large acts as if Apps are some sort of new found Apple stroke of marketing genius. Ironically it is, but only in the sense of lining Apple’s coffers and establishing magisterial oversight. The only thing new about Apps is new found willingness to relinquishing control.

We’ve never had to go to an OS’s proprietary ‘store’ in order to buy or install software on our computers. On the consumer front, we’ve never been forced to shop at a ‘store’ where the maker of the OS gets to dictate what type of software is appropriate for our computers. Likewise, as creators and developers of new software we’ve never had to get approval at the corporate OS level in order to distribute our wares. It’s always been a free market. When and why did this shift happen so silently? Imagine if Microsoft had tried that twenty years ago. My hunch is that Apple is too cool to argue with. Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive successfully established Apple as a company that is literally too cool, too well designed to be wrong. And we as consumers have bought into that authority rather that relying on our own reasonable senses. So we just keep looking up on the pedestal to our brushed aluminum deity for guidance. And since we’re always looking up there, other companies like Google and Palm can’t help but look up too.

So here’s the thing. I’d love to see more and more companies expend the same amount of time care and focus on their mobile website offerings as they do with their Apps. I bet there is all sorts of novel and creative ways in which a website can deliver engaging experiences on a handheld device. It would be so much better for developers and users alike. Games and productivity are more than enough to keep the AApppp world raging and I’ve seen some really interesting uses of them in intensely inspiring ways, mostly in the category of just plain fun for games and for productivity, some great thinking around augmenting the physical experience with technology. I hoping that the dust around the ‘new’ concept of Apps is starting to settle and we’ll soon see developers and marketers making smarter decisions in these areas, but I can’t say I’m 100% confident now that the iPad and GoogleTV are poised to begin another outbreak of App-madness…

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