In my previous post “The Rise of App Stores: Software Industry in Regression?” I discussed the reasons why the very successful app stores of major smartphone vendors are taking the software industry back to a model which does not bode well for innovation in the industry or for the consumer. There are three problems with the app store model. First, app stores sell proprietary software that only works on the app store owner’s platform. Proprietary applications are more expensive for the developer as well as the consumer. Second, app stores give a lot of control to the app store owner to decide which apps will be offered and which will not. This control is likely to be abused and some, like Adobe, claim that it is already being abused. Lastly, proprietary applications create a major support and maintenance problem for companies who wish to deploy their solutions across platforms. Not only does the app have to be developed for each platform, but it also has to be registered on each. Indeed, whenever there is a simple bug fix or a complex upgrade the app has to be modified for all the platforms, re-registered with the app stores of each platform, and downloaded by the smartphone user. All this adds to increased cost and delays
In my opinion the app store model is greatly inferior to the Web model that the software industry has evolved to. While all software started as proprietary, it gradually became more and more cross-platform. With the emergence of Web applications it became truly cross-platform. Software vendors, who chose the Web model, as more and more were doing, only had to write one version of their application and the application would run on virtually any platform. Second, the Web model promoted freedom and innovation. Companies do not have to register their application with anyone but the ultimate consumer. Consumers have the freedom to use the Internet to select and use any Web application. Finally, Web applications are much easier to support and maintain as there is only one version running on the Web server. Changes made to this one application are immediately available to all users. All these factors increase innovation, reduce cost and work to the benefit of the end customer.
Looking at it another way, software applications used to have a middleman, be it the hardware vendor or the installation partner. As we know in this day and age no one likes a middleman. Web applications got rid of the middleman and all the inefficiencies associated with the middleman. Smartphone app stores have brought back the middleman. The reason why the smartphone platform vendors can force themselves as middlemen is due to the clout they have because of the sheer number of users using their platform, and some continuing limitations in technology.
Web applications basically commoditized hardware and reduced the clout of the hardware vendors and software OS platform owners. If everything could run inside a browse, and all applications can be distributed and used easily on-demand, there is not much use for the rest of the OS other than running and supporting the browser. The one disadvantage that Web apps did have was that the UI was not as robust as native applications. When smartphone came along with the introduction of the Apple iPhone three years ago, it exacerbated this problem in two ways:
- Browsers running in smartphone are not as powerful as browsers running on desktops
- Browser apps did not have access to platform resources such as voice, camera, geo location and contacts database, etc.
Native apps developed using the software development kits of the platform vendors did not have any such restrictions, even though they were proprietary. Developer latched on to this and developed tens of thousands of platform-specific rich applications. This momentum carried the app stores to become the most vibrant and fast-growing sectors of the software industry. So the ingredients of this regressive development were twofold: technical limitations of the Web applications and the power of the platform vendors resulting from sheer numbers.
While today app stores and proprietary applications are dominant, like in the early days of the PC industry, I believe the pendulum is going to swing back and Web applications will become dominant again in the coming years because of the following reasons:
- HTML5, while still in its infancy but maturing fast, will equalize the playing field with native apps by giving Web app developers access to hardware and platform resources such as voice, camera, geo location, etc. Web application developers will able to develop rich applications with the functionality of native apps. This, coupled with the fact that Web apps are cross-platform, bypass the middleman, and are easier to maintain and distribute, will make them as attractive for smartphone apps as they were for the laptop/desktop apps.
- A Web app is not restricted to one smartphone platform, or even to smartphones. They can run on any device which has a browser. So the potential reach of Web apps will far exceed the reach of proprietary apps. Clout will shift back to Web apps due to sheer numbers, for the same reason it has swayed to native apps.
Obviously the key to this is HTML5 which will endow Web apps with like-native functionality and excellent user interfaces which are the hallmark of Web 2.0. On this front I am pleased to note that all major Internet browsers are aggressively adding HTML5 support to their browsers. Even Microsoft, which is often a follower in terms of supporting industry standards, has announced that the new Internet Explorer 9 will have strong HTML5 support. The company considers it to be the future of the Internet despite the fact that it has invested heavily in Silverlight which in many ways competes with HTML5. So I am convinced that the regressive movement of the software industry towards app store-driven proprietary applications will only be a temporary phenomenon.