Mobile apps—the bane of the modern mobile web experience

What’s wrong with a straightforward mobile website?

Have I ever mentioned that I hate mobile apps? I’m not talking about apps in general. I think it’s great that I can have a calculator on my phone, or skype. But apps that serve as replacements for websites, such as the facebook app or the linkedin app, I hate with a passion. I think they are a step backwards in web development. They degrade the mobile experience for all of us.

I encourage you to try the following experiment. Go to your favorite app store and read the reviews of a few mobile apps. What are the most common complaints? “This app lacks features.” “I can’t do with the app what I can do on the website.” “The iphone [android] app has feature X, why does the android [iphone] app lack this feature?” I have yet to encounter a mobile app that can be considered feature complete.

The original promise of web 2.0 was that we would never ever again have to worry about software installation, operating systems, or device type. As long as we had a network connection and a browser, we’d be able to use our favorite products and tools. And software developers should be able to deliver a better product, since they wouldn’t have to worry about implementing the same features over multiple architectures. On the desktop, this promise has actually played out. For example, whatever you think about facebook the product, you can’t argue that facebook the web platform isn’t a spectacular piece of web engineering. Similarly with google products, such as drive, gmail, or maps. Squarespace, my webhost, has a fantastic online content management system that allows you to develop both the content and the visual appearance of your website in an intuitive and interactive way right in your browser. In the mobile world, however, we haven’t made much progress. Mobile sites frequently don’t work that well or lack features. And mobile apps, the purported replacement for the mobile sites, also frequently don’t work that well or lack features. More often than not, I find myself requesting the desktop version of a page from my phone or tablet because only the desktop version lets me do what I want to do.

A particularly egregious case is squarespace, which—as I just said—is great on the desktop. On a mobile device, their content manager is utterly useless. In fact, squarespace in their infinite wisdom have decided that I shouldn’t even be allowed to log into their site if I’m on any type of “mobile” device.1 (What exactly is the difference between a macbook air and an ipad? That the latter needs an external keyboard?) The only option I have is their squarespace app, which, pardon my french, is utter crap. Thus, I have a tablet with computational power that would have been considered worthy of a supercomputer 15 years ago, but I still can’t use it for seemingly simple things such as maintaining my website.

Another things that bugs me is that most apps don’t synchronize their state across devices and platforms. Consider twitter. Let’s say I’m browsing twitter from my laptop and I get a new tweet. Great. I read it and I move on. An hour later I open the twitter app on my phone, and the app tells me proudly that I have a new tweet. Great! Let’s see what it is. Oh, it’s the same tweet I read already. A few hours later I open the twitter app on my tablet, and it also tells me proudly that I have a new tweet. Guess what. Yep, it’s the same tweet from before, which I’m now seeing for the third time.2 The twitter app is an interesting case because it looks almost identical to the twitter mobile web interface, with the main difference being that the number of followers I have properly updates on the web interface but not in the app. I’m still not quite sure what the point of the twitter app is.

The only app I’m pretty happy with is the gmail app, with the one caveat that it doesn’t allow me to create new labels. I’ve got to go to the gmail website for that purpose. The other app I’m quite happy with is the google drive app. In fact, I wrote part of this post using the google drive app on my phone. But that app also has important limitations. For example, while I can change fonts or font size, and can make things bold or italics, I can’t assign styles. Why?

Clearly, even the largest web corporations don’t have the manpower or capability to keep feature parity among their main website, their mobile site, and their mobile apps. I submit that we’d all be better off if mobile apps disappeared and the googles and facebooks of this world put all their energy into improving mobile web technology and mobile versions of their web sites.

  1. Their argument is that their content manager might not fully work on a mobile device, and thus they’re trying to protect me from messing up my site. I’d prefer to be treated as an adult and allowed to mess up my site with my tablet if I so wish. I mean, how hard would it be to display a warning screen saying: “This might not work fully. Are you sure you want to proceed?”↩︎

  2. Of course I’ll see the message a fourth time when I open my email inbox. But I can’t fault Twitter for that, I chose to switch on email notifications. The take-home message for you, my reader, is that if you send me a tweet you can be sure I see it. A lot.↩︎

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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