Blogs & Comment

The future, and death, of apps

It’s called responsive web design, and it could be the next big thing in web development. It could also reveal that apps are just a passing phase.

(Photo: Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

Take a moment to check out The Boston Globe’s new website. It might not seem too fancy at first—though that’s hardly an insult in an age where simplicity reigns supreme—but now try scaling the browser window. Make it bigger. Make it smaller. Open it on your phone, your tablet, your game console. Surprise, surprise: it fits every browser size like a well-tailored suit.

It’s called responsive web design, and it could be the next big thing in web development. In the process, it could also reveal that apps—despite being all the rage in 2011—are nothing more than a passing phase.

For me, the realization came on Thursday when I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Nick Blunden, managing director and publisher for The Economist online. The idea of splintering your product to suit every new platform is quite ludicrous, he said—at least in the long run.

The point came up when talking about the Financial Times’ decision to abandon app stores, instead directing people to a web-based app. The new HTML5-driven app has been a huge success in a short amount of time, garnering over 700,000 users and becoming more popular than the now-abandoned Apple App Store version.

The move was a response to Apple calling for a 30 percent cut of subscription revenue along with control over subscriber data. FT got a lot of attention for its quick and vocal departure, but recent numbers now show that FT made the right move, and that app stores could become a thing of the past as quickly as they were heralded as the way of the future.

But FT may only be halfway up the stairs, while The Boston Globe—at least from a theoretical point of view, if not a financial one—has arrived closer to the top. FT still has different pages for different platforms; there’s an iPad page, an iPhone page, and, according to FT’s website, they’ll “soon be making the new FT app available on a range of other phones and devices.”

Meanwhile, The Boston Globe has created something of a one-shot solution—with some success.

For example, Mat Marquis, one of the developers behind the new look, said the site works great on the totally untested Nintendo DS browser. “This proved the design could withstand even edge-case unknowns,” he told .net magazine. Other edge-case unknowns, on the other hand (like the browser of my three-year-old, soon-to-be-replaced Samsung Instinct, which I’ve also never updated), still don’t load the site pristinely.  

Nonetheless, it’s a largely successful and impressive case study, and no doubt Ethan Marcotte, author of Responsive Web Design, would say it’s a step in the right direction.

In an article bearing the same title as his book, Marcotte writes about the growing futility of modern-day web development:

“We can quarantine the mobile experience on separate subdomains, spaces distinct and separate from “the non-iPhone website.” But what’s next? An iPad website? An N90 website? Can we really continue to commit to supporting each new user agent with its own bespoke experience? At some point, this starts to feel like a zero sum game.”

In short, he thinks website architecture shouldn’t be static. It should morph and bend and be prepared for all manner of devices, including those not yet invented.

The days of building websites for set resolutions could be coming to a fast-approaching end. It may be a steep learning curve and a costly transition for many, but the alternative seems to be a never-ending process of building app after app after app.   

As one of my colleagues pointed out, people do like the convenience of having an app button on their phone—a direct link to the product—but there’s no reason that button couldn’t lead to the website instead, essentially acting like a desktop shortcut.

And, hey, this could be good news for RIM—if they’re still around for the revolution. One of the company’s biggest hurdles is waning app support. Peter Nowak wrote a blog earlier this week on how Mercedes made a recent app for Apple and Android but decided BlackBerry wasn’t worth the effort. In a world without apps—where the Internet is universally adaptable—customers no longer need to pledge their allegiance to the operating systems with the biggest supply. It could be an opportunity for RIM to regain lost ground.

Everything apps do can be done on a browser. And it may just be a matter of time before websites catch up, and responsive web design shows apps the door.