Q&A: David Michel-Davies
Tuesday, July 19, 2011 - 04:12 PM
This May, we weighed the merits of Apple's curated app store against the Android's big tent model, and what each meant for the future of free speech, but David-Michel Davies, Executive Director of the Webby Awards, suspects that this dichotomy might be a moot point. Instead, he offers a third option that has been hiding in plain sight.
Q: In an earlier show, we spent a lot of time comparing the two dominant app environments (iPhone/Android), but you think that might turn out to be a false choice. Why?
A: When the iPhone was launched in 2007 – and for the most part this is still the case – the type of experience you could have through an app was exponentially better than what you could get using a mobile web-browser. But that's changing. So long term I think the choice isn't going to be just between Android and iOS, but between apps and http, and, even then, I don't think it will be one or the other; each will have their uses depending on what we are trying to do online.
Q: But why would companies and other organizations want to leave the app-store model? Consumers, after all love apps. Isn’t this is a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”
Well, what consumers love about apps is the experience. They can be very fast and immersive, and certainly touch is a big part of that. But I'm not convinced that consumers love downloading a new piece of software for every online service they want to use. What's great about the World Wide Web is that you just need once piece of software to access any one of its billions of pages. That's a once-in-centuries kind of innovation.
Imagine if you could have the app experience of today, but instead of needing an app for every service or site you use from your mobile phone, you just needed one browser. That would simplify things for consumers, and for developers too; it’s certainly easier for companies and organizations to develop one Web site for everyone than dozens of apps for all these different devices, operating systems, etc.
Q: But there’s still a trade-off here. The web experience, by its very nature, just isn’t going to be as straight forward or elegant as the app experience. Can you get consumers back on the farm now that they’ve seen Paris?
A: I think what's going to happen is that a lot of mobile web sites are going to become equal to or almost equal to their app counterparts, so consumers won't need to download an app to get the experience and service they want. Here's a great example: everyone at my office has Microsoft Word on their computers, but for the most part, we all use Google Docs for word processing. It is probably slightly inferior in some ways to MS Word, but there are so many other great things about it - that we can easily share our work and access it from anywhere in the world - that we prefer it.
Q: What about those apps whose business model is based on sales, like Angry Birds? We’ve seen that people are willing to pay for apps, but not so much for websites.
A: It's not like apps are going away. And yes, I think, especially for games, and other more intensive experiences, apps will continue to be superior, for both the revenue model and because you can often do more intense computational work with software running on your phone as opposed to across the network. But at the same time there are a lot of services that can work perfectly well on the Web. Take Google Maps. the iPhone app is great, but the mobile Web site is almost equal in caliber and experience.
Q: Do you think there’s a lesson here? That perhaps walled gardens – like iOS, like app-stores – despite their elegance and orderliness, are unsustainable?
A: I don't think there is anything inherently unsustainable about an app store or apps. Computers - whether they are phones or PCs or the mainframe terminals of the past - have been running local software since they were created, and places to buy and sell that software have been around almost as long. What I think is probably unsustainable is a model where people need to download and install software for real-time services or information that can easily be provided by using a browser and http. As I mentioned earlier, one key reason the Web has been so successful (and will continue to be) is you need just one piece of local software to browse and use any one of billions of sites and services. It is hard to overstate how important and sustainable that is.
On a more philosophical note, the idea that one central authority approves what software can or can't be downloaded to your iPhone strikes me as fairly unsustainable for the iPhone's general well being in the long term. The very nature of the Internet is that it's decentralized, that anyone can access and publish to it, develop software for it, etc., and that there is really no barrier to doing those things, save for having the materials and the knowledge to do them. It is this core openness that has made the Internet such a fertile ground for so many of the world's most wonderful new things - including the iPhone! I think there were a lot of very good reasons for Apple to launch the iPhone and App Store with this more centralized system, but I think long-term it will have to decentralize, in some way, to remain a competitive platform.