Are mobile apps destroying the openness of the web?

Client-facing applications had once been freed of underlying hardware and operating systems. Now the pendulum is swinging back.

iPad photo by Joe McKendrick 5-2013

In the effort to make life easier through mobile apps, we may be losing something very important -- the openness of the web. In a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims suggests that the wide-open web that launched a thousand new businesses and a million new ideas over the past two decades "is dying." In its place, he suggests, is the more proprietary, closed-off world of mobile apps. 

The web as it was designed, he says, "created a commons where people could exchange information and goods. It forced companies to build technology designed to be compatible with competitors' technology."  Emerging closed app ecosystems don't share those ideals of openness between vendors' offerings.

Is Mims right? There is a push and pull of forces seen with the mobile app revolution. A holy grail of computing has always been user friendliness to the point that people can access powerful services without the need for training manuals or learning curves. The web went a long way to achieving this, but mobile apps have brought user-friendliness to a whole new level.

There is also another holy grail of computing, and that is standardization. What made the web revolutionary was its total obliviousness to underlying hardware and software. It no longer mattered if you had a PC with Windows XP or Windows 8, or a Mac or Linux workstation. (Or an iPhone with Safari or mobile phone with a WAP browser, for that matter.) Through browsers, everyone has access to the same applications, with the same look and feel.

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Mobile apps once again anchor client-facing applications to hardware and operating systems. You can't get to the Apple App Store without an Apple iPhone. You can't use Google Play (Android Marketplace) with an Android device. And so on. 

For developers, this means making hard choices as to where invest time and resources. I've spoken with countless developers and IT managers over the past 24 months who all have been faced with the question of whether to build and support multiple versions of the same app. Typically, the choice has been to do an iOS app first, then introduce Android or Windows. This requires multiple versions, standards and features, not to mention skills. Some are opting to bag it and simply build HTML5 apps that will run within browsers. But as any seasoned developer or IT manager understands all too well, limiting support at the design end means locking out large segments of customers.

As mobile apps continue to proliferate as client access environments of choice, we may see more hard choices needing to be made. Unfortunately, as Mims suggests, the great era of openness that propelled unprecedented innovation in business technology may be coming to an end. "Today, as apps take over, the Web's architects are abandoning it," he writes. "The process of creating new Web standards has slowed to a crawl."