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Why Apps Are Evil

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  ethics tech

7 min read | 1865 words | 451 views | 0 comments

Here at InterLinked, we maintain a firm opposition to mobile apps, and we're not the only ones. Considering that we feel the modern "mobile culture" to be beneath us, why sink to that level of mediocrity?

Such feelings aside, however, mobile apps have had important ramifications for society, whether intended or not. Although many consumers feel that apps are all the rage these days, apps are truly one of the (many) modern evils in society.

To understand why apps are evil, let's go back to the beginning of the Internet. Actually, no need to even go back that far. Let's go back to the beginning of the World Wide Web. It may be hard to believe it now, but the "web" was only conceived by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, and the first website only launched in 1991. Known as Web 1.0 today, early websites were static collections of hyperlinked documents, a far cry from today's "Web 2.0" sites which are dynamic and responsive to user input and actions. Still, it was a big breakthrough. Why was the web so revolutionary?

To be clear, the Internet existed long before the world wide web came around, with roots in the 1960s in the defense arena. But until the World Wide Web, it never gained prominence amongst businesses and consumers. Prior to the 1990s, email and Internet communications took place in a pre-digital communications world. Almost all electronic traffic went over phone lines, as was the case even in the early days of the Internet. The difference, however, was that nearly all connections were direct. If you wanted to exchange information with a distant computer, you dialed the phone number of the computer in question — or more appropriately the phone number of the modem connected to the computer. Hopefully, nobody else was connected to that computer, or you would get a busy signal. But assuming all lines were clear, you would get connected to the computer at a decent 300 bits per second, or 300 baud, and be able to exchange information.

Each time you wanted to exchange information with a different computer, this involved releasing the telephone line of your modem and dialing the next number. It sounds tedious today, and it would be in today's day and age. Imagine if you will — for this is analogous — every time you want to visit a different website, you have to hangup your modem, look up the number for that server (because there's no DNS equivalent, to translate server names into phone numbers, keep that in mind!), and dial that number. Because it's a standard phone connection, other people could be using the resource, in which case the line may be busy. Computer communications are largely circuit-switched, not packet-switched via "always-on" broadband connections, and each connection to a different machine is a separate, disparate process.

The World Wide Web was revolutionary for precisely this reason. With dial-up Internet and the first Internet Service Providers, users could connect to an ISP from which they could then connect to any number of resources — all using the same connection. For those used to broadband, dial-up Internet might seem quaint, but it allowed users to dial a single phone number to connect to a seemingly infinite number of resources, rather than connect to each resource individually. The same model, in effect, continues with modern broadband Internet access, which allows users to connect to any website in the world using a single connection to an ISP. Why is this important? It makes linking between websites possible, allowing for hypertext links, or "hyperlinks", from one page on the Internet to any other. Thanks to DNS, the TCP/IP stack, the HTTP and HTTPS protocols, and HTML and other web languages, today's Internet users have access to a vast playground of interrelated, connected, intertwined resources.

Nowhere has this become more visible than with the rise of search engines, like Google and Bing. The reason search engines are possible is that they can crawl through millions of websites seamlessly and effortlessly. Links from one webpage other webpages form the basis for search engine results, which rely fundamentally on hyperlinks between websites. Sharing information was the main purpose of the World Wide Web, and the beauty of its fundamental operation is that it relies on sharing and linking between sites. Sure, a website can be an island, but in reality, few are. In contrast, apps are, by their very nature, islands.

Now, let's compare the World Wide Web with app marketplaces. The latter allow you to download an app to access content from a specific content provider — whether it's a game, social media platform, or search engine. Here are just a few reasons this is problematic:

  1. Accessibility — A major difference between the web and apps is how you access them. Anyone can (more or less) access any website and any webpage on the Internet using a web browser (yes, there are other ways to use the world wide web, but we'll focus here on just the average joe, who's likely not accessing webpages using Lynx or cURL). Each app, on the other hand, requires a separate installation. Imagine having to download a browser extension for every website you wanted to visit. This is analagous to the current state of app marketplaces. Hyperlinks and URLs make it easy to navigate the plethora of content available on the web today. In contrast, there is no universal way to navigate apps, which is further complicated by there being no universal app marketplace. In contrast, there is only one World Wide Web, with everything connected with everything else. Webpages, in theory if not in practice, are accessible to all; mobile apps, in theory and in practice, are and always will be inaccessible to many.
  2. Interlinking — With no pun intended on our name, here is perhaps the biggest drawback to apps. The web was built to connect websites together. In contrast, each app operates in isolation. You can look up something in the Bing app, watch a video in the YouTube app, and play a game in the 2048 app. However, using the web, you can do all of these things with a single web browser, simply by navigating to the appropriate URL. The concepts of "URLs" and "hyperlinks", however, which make web content easy to save, bookmark, and share, do not exist with apps. Forget about some universally unique URL that can open up a particular app to a particular screen. Apps operate in isolation, and there's no universally addressable schema that unites them. Furthermore, different apps exist for different devices, since each mobile device manufacturer has its own app marketplace. Not only are apps separate from each other, but entire app marketplaces themselves are isolated from one another.
  3. Portability — As already mentioned, there is only one World Wide Web (sure, you can have your own local websites, but you're still using the same protocols). In contrast, there is no one universal app marketplace. There are as many app marketplaces as there are mobile device manufacturers, and there is no connection between any of them. Web developers can develop content once and, more or less, expect it to work in most modern web browsers without too much effort, thus making it available to everyone with access to the World Wide Web. In contrast, app developers might be required to develop multiple disparate apps for each app marketplace. Not only is this inefficient, but the effort expended on doing this is simply ridiculous. While you can create a website accessible to nearly 100% of web users, there is no way to develop an app that is available to a large majority of app users.
  4. Interoperability — As a consequence of the lack of portability of apps, if an app on your marketplace doesn't exist, you're pretty much out of luck. Let it be granted that apps are likely to exist only for larger more popular platforms. While anyone with a web browser can access any website, you can only access the apps developed specifically for your device.
  5. Barriers To Use — If you don't have some kind of "smart" mobile device, whether a "smartphone" or a tablet, you can't run a mobile app. Developers can use emulators like Bluestacks, of course, but why would the average person do that? You're pretty much shut out from content only available through apps. In contrast, anyone with a web browser — either on a computer or mobile device — can access a webpage. Apps are largely only for mobile devices. This is the same reason that QR codes are evil: they require a device with a camera, which pretty much means some kind of portable mobile device. In contrast, anyone with a web browser can type in a URL. With URL shortening services in abundance today, there's NO excuse to use a QR code when you could provide a URL, which is accessible to more people.

At this point, a word for the wise: apps are not the same as applications. Applications are desktop applications that run only on computers. Apps run on mobile devices, although with platforms like UWP (Universal Windows Platform), apps can also be run directly on computers.

While the list above is by no means exhaustive, it provides a quick overview on why apps are evil and why we refuse to endorse them. Not only do they require the use of personal mobile devices, which are carcinogenic, but they effectively shut out the workhorses of the digital world: computers. Whereas apps box users into a closed, restricted world, websites have allowed information to be exchanged more freely and widely than ever before. The phone phreak "Cheshire Catalyst", the creator of Florida's 321 area code, is another huge proponent of accessible web pages over inaccessible mobile apps. While it's worth mentioning that with most apps available today, particularly those for large platforms, a website does exist and almost certainly preceded the app, there are some apps out there for which there is no website or for which the same functionality on the associated website does not exist. These apps are truly evil, for they make it impossible to have the same experience from the comfort of one's web browser. In contrast, the Facebook app, for example, merely provides access to some of things accessible from facebook.com. Still, why offer a Facebook app when users can just navigate to the website? It only encourages users to box themselves into the narrow-minded, closed off world of apps and their marketplaces.

We encourage all developers (and consumers) today to be responsible. App developers and web developers today are both highly in demand, but one of these occupations is part of a movement making content more accessible and more freely available, while the other words to make content more restricted, more closed off, and more disconnected with what's already out there. Which would you rather do?

I am reminded here of the famous "Two Seas" parable. The Sea of Galilee gives and receives, much like content on the web. It is full of flowing water and life. The Dead Sea keeps every drop it gets and gives nothing, much like mobile apps. There are two seas in Palestine. There are two ways you can develop and publish Internet content.

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