The world without apps

Can you image the world without a web browser? I cannot, not anymore. A good half of my life has been spent in front of one, and it has been great experience so far!

I have a very simple proposition. What if we did not need apps anymore, but instead replaced them with the good old browser? I am not talking about replacing iPhone/Android apps with JavaScript that converts to native frameworks, but rather replacing the concept of an app to mean a “mobile optimized website.”

iPhone apps took the world by a storm in 2008. One day they were just a toy, the next day apps made many people millionaires, and now they are everywhere. Yet, as I just learned and many experienced app developers have confirmed, apps are bloody hard to built. Development is expensive and time consuming, and at the end of the day, it is all done for one reason and one reason alone, to be on somebody’s home screen.

What if we didn’t need apps as they are now and instead replaced the majority of them with websites? Websites are easier to develop, faster to iterate, and don’t require approval in order to be accessible to anyone. Best yet, websites work on any phone. iPhone, Android, Facebook Phone, flip phone, black-n-white phone … websites just work.

I would venture to bet that users are not particular to how they get the content, so long as they get the functionality.

Currently, the best apps surface to the top of the app stores regardless if they cost $1 or $1M to create, but as the gatekeepers keep development costs high, everyone not at the top of the leaderboard loses money due to inherently long dev cycle. On top of that, as the “best” apps race to the top, indie apps that did not have the budget to buy clicks and eyeballs end up unnoticed. As a result, users miss out on potentially amazing applications.

Is it possible to replace most apps with just websites?
I think it is, and it would be favorable for the users.

Why do we even have apps anyway? Primarily, it’s hardware acceleration. Maps, Photos, Games, Voice/Video apps, those can benefit heavily from the power of hardware to do what they do. Leave them as apps! But beyond that? Messaging, food delivery, email, translation, car-hailing apps, shopping apps, notes, banking apps, Books/Newspapers/Magazines, Bitcoin? … The majority of apps, have no business of being apps. How do we make them into mobile websites?

A couple of things need to happen for this transition. One, developers would need to agree on a set of design principles. Two, web apps would need an easy way to emulate native functions and to access phone’s hardward APIs from the web, boosting websites’ performance. Three, the current gatekeepers would need to stand behind this, and for that, they would need to financially benefit from decentralization.

Agreeing on the principles is easy. Apple and Google already require that developers follow UI guidelines. These new web-based mobile apps of the future would need to be engineered slight differently from the current websites. In order to give equivalent performance as native, these apps would need to replicate some of the native functionality. Apple can still mandate their guidelines while Android does their own, but adjust CSS on the web is still a lot faster than doing an entirely new mobile app.

To load and work completely offline the apps would need local caching, but not just for the content, but for the app wrapper itself. These apps would further need to know how to buffer and transfer their content in a way that doesn’t cause any user delay and seems as flawless as native. Features like push notification, localization, data management …etc, those are all features that exist on the web and can easily be reused.

Access to hardware from the browser is harder, but not unsolvable. Apps would need to be able to easily interact with the camera, the bluetooth, the GPUs and such, all from the outside of a phone. Ideally, a developer would be able to take an image from the camera, keep a local copy, process it using the native hardware, immediately output adjusted image into the browser, and only then transfer it to a website. This way, a phone could tremendously enhance a website, seamlessly to a user.

These, and other features would have to be taken into account, but they are all solvable problems, and solving them can actually help with getting Apple, Google, and Facebook on board. These companies would compete in being the best value add. What if Instagram worked 100x better on the iPhone than it did on Android. Which phone would you get then?

As of right now, neither of the major players in the space (Apple, Google, Facebook) want to give up their control of the app ecosystems [revenue], but just as mainframes went away and moved to the laptops, and then to the cloud, the app stores will have to evolve to be competitive.

Without a centralized app store and buy-in from top players, places like Product Hunt could become the leading web-app recommendation solutions. App developers already spend a lot of time planning launches, app-store SEO, content strategy and other things necessary for success in an app store. These strategies already include the web, so nothing new would need to be invented. Furthermore, remember, these apps would only be “apps” in the way that we are used to them right now. In reality, they would just be websites, so once you found the right website for what you need, you would have found the app too, no extra steps necessary.

What would focusing on the web, instead of apps look like for the major players? For Apple it would mean advancing Web Kit in such a way that it comes pre-loaded with web-app functionality, where apps can easily integrate with local DBs, and take advantage of really optimized caching, and then tap into hardware devices within the iPhone, and make use of the new Metal framework right from within the browser. Apple is already moving in the right direction by making Swift an open source language. Meanwhile, Android will inevitably converge their Chrome OS and the Android ecosystems. The browser is amazing, and instead of taking power away from it, we should be supercharging the browser.

Developers would benefit from not having to learn new frameworks, and instead would be able to code in whatever language they are used to. Learning iOS/Swift/ObjC is hard, so is learning Android, JS-to-native language is also a time sink. The base layers are changing too fast to keep up. Heavy up-front investment to build apps means only a small subset of developers are creating apps right now.

If the major players became more competitive in the functionality they provide, the developers would flock to use their software over that of their competitors. Think Facebook buying Parse, or Google buying Firebase. Those services had a non-marginal impact on the ecosystem. In turn, Googles and Apples can make money by enabling developers to do more, and charge a percentage of transactions much like they do right now, 100x more of those transactions could happen if more players are able to participate and iterate faster.

A walled garden cannot stand forever. Open the ecosystem, remove the development constrains, only imagination will then stand between apps and their users.

This might be a long view on the apps. I might be optimistic. Either way, the browser has survived a few decades and apps are still very new. Right now is a good time to wonder where they are going. I’d love to know what you are thinking about all of this; if you’re interested, email me and let’s have a chat. I also have a newsletter which I update at random intervals. If you’d like to hear more thoughts like these, please sign up ->

Update: The day after I wrote this post, Google has begun to experiment with a new way of indexing and streaming apps on mobile. Now, when you search for select information, you can pre-load apps directly from Google, even if you don't have them installed. This is a slightly different approach, but it leads to the same place, where apps and websites are indistinguishable. Bam!

Thanks to Rafal Dittwald, Ash Bhoopathy and Startup L. Jackson for reading a draft of this post.