Four Kitchens

Apps are icons

5 Min. ReadDesign and UX

We at Four Kitchens believe native mobile applications — the things you download from the App Store or Google Play and install on your smartphones or tablets — are a stop-gap technology that will be replaced by web applications that run inside browsers. Here’s why:

  • Many “apps” are simply dumbed-down versions of websites. This is frustrating to users who want to access the full capabilities of those websites.
  • Maintaining a website and multiple versions of apps (iOS, Android, Windows Mobile) in multiple flavors (like the so-called “HD” apps for larger screens) is expensive and inconvenient.
  • Apps were originally invented because websites couldn’t tap into the capabilities of mobile devices. Now, wrappers like PhoneGap and native Device APIs expose websites to your device’s senses: touch (gestures, multitouch), sight (cameras, ambient light sensors), sound (microphones), motion (compass, accelerometers), and location (GPS, proximity detectors).

Everything is converging on the web. Or, rather, reconverging on the web. But there’s just one, tiny thing — a single, critical flaw on popular mobile devices — that will prevent web apps’ ascendency and continue to prop up the “need” for native apps. It’s not hardware-software integration, which is quickly being solved with clever APIs and libraries. It’s not frontend performance, as increased processing power and better JavaScript support will level the playing field. It’s much simpler than that. It’s a matter of psychology.

It’s the icon.

What is an “app”?

In 2009, a film crew from Google visited Times Square to ask people on the street a simple question: What is a browser? (I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of this post) Here are some highlights:

  • “A website that you search on. I think.”
  • “It’s a search engine. A browser is… a search engine. A browse…? Right.”
  • “It’s where I search through. Like, to find things.”
  • “It’s where you put your search terms. Correct?”
  • “Google.”
  • “A browser is what you use to look at internet webpages.” (Ding, ding, ding!)
  • “I use Yahoo. Or is that not a browser?”

As web professionals, we thought these answers were both hilarious and disappointing. Some of us probably lamented the “stupidity” of the average internet user. We laughed, we cried, we face-palmed. But all of these reactions were, of course, totally unfair. It doesn’t matter if someone thinks their “browser” is Google. It only matters that they’re able to use it.

This video was a stark reminder of how everyday people — the anonymous, depersonalized “users” we claim to serve — conceptualize technology: People understand technology in terms how they use it, not what it is.

How, then, would they define an “app?” Most people perceive apps as completely different from websites because they access them in different ways. To access Twitter, people tap the Twitter icon on their phone. To access websites, they open a browser and thumb in a URL. But as web professionals, we know that opening a native Twitter application and visiting in a browser are simply different ways to access the same service. To us, the only difference is the packaging. To normal people, our “users,” this difference is huge: one is an icon, the other is a website. And the icon is easier to use.

As web technologies continue to mature, the technical distinction between a native app and a web app will completely vanish. Both will be fast, easy to use, and will make full use of a device’s capabilities (camera, GPS, etc.). Because making a single web app that works on all devices is far cheaper and more sustainable than building native apps for multiple platforms in addition to a website, native apps will become far less desirable to clients. But they will not disappear completely until we close the cognitive gap between apps and websites.

In other words, native apps will not die until people can “install” and “open” websites as easily as tapping an icon.

XKCD comic strip

How to make websites into icons

Option #1: Better browser support for bookmarks

Some mobile operating systems allow you to add a bookmark to your device’s home screen. Both iOS’s and Android’s methods are kludgy and limited, hidden deep within the bookmarks interface. The Kindle Fire automatically adds your recently viewed websites to its Carousel (the coverflow-style browser on the home screen), and you can add a shortcut to your “Favorites” (the icon grid below the Carousel) in just two taps.

iOS and Andriod should take a cue from the Kindle Fire, make websites first-class citizens, and allow bookmarks to be added to home screens with a tap or two. By appearing as an icon on a home screen, websites will being to feel more like apps — which, of course, they already are.

Option #2: Tighter browser integration with mobile operating systems

With the rise of Chrome, Firefox has fallen out of favor as the preferred browser among web professionals. But let’s not forget: Firefox revolutionized the web by breaking Internet Explorer’s stranglehold on innovation.

Mozilla may be doing it again with Firefox OS, an operating system for mobile devices built entirely using web standards. This isn’t an operating system with a tightly integrated browser — the operating system is the browser, and it uses markup, CSS, and JavaScript to do everything from playing games to making phone calls.

Deep integration between mobile browsers and operating systems will further close the gap between web and native apps. Adding bookmarks to home screens will be trivial, because bookmarks will no longer be stuck inside the browser application as a feature — they will be fully accessible to the OS to display as first-class citizens alongside apps.

Option #3: An open standard for adding bookmarks as home-screen icons

Because Firefox OS is built using web standards, its Mozilla Apps platform is designed to be entirely web-based and distributed. Anyone can install an app from anywhere — no app “store” required.

What this requires, of course, is a web standard for defining apps, how they are installed, and where they can be downloaded from. And that’s exactly what Mozilla is doing with Firefox OS.

David Walsh, a web developer and evangelist at Mozilla, recently published a blog post describing a method for defining and installing apps. (More details can be found in the draft W3C spec for web app management.) This is exciting because an open standard for web applications will finally end the psychological divide between web apps and websites. People will no longer download apps — they will add stuff to their home screen. And that “stuff” could be anything: a bookmark, a live map to take them home, Instagram, or a game.

People don’t care what something is. They only care about what it does. Is Google a browser or a search engine? Is this icon on my phone an app or a website? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s easy to access and use.

Further reading, playing, and viewing

Web apps

Demos of some Device APIs

Google’s What is a browser? video

Illustration by Aaron Stanush