I would like to notify you that ‘App’ is a word that will be repeated endlessly throughout this article. This random article is about my thoughts on the difference between a ‘dedicated’ application and a ‘cloud-based’ resources (ie. web-apps), including the specific reasons why one would be better than the other in various circumstances. No doubt, the strength of a smartphone lies in the ability for the user to customise the user experience through installing first or third-party applications. By doing so, they have the choice of bridging many shortcomings that the phone may have. The fact that many smartphone platforms are judged often on the pure quantity of applications they have, even though it may be misleading, is a sign that c0nsumers want as much functionality as easily as possible, therefore by having a large pool to choose from, competition and attrition will result in the ‘best’ apps available.
So people begin to associate functionality with apps alone. Want to check the weather? There’s an app for that. Exchange rates? Download the app. Even drilling down to one-off mundane uses, for example restaurants having their own iPhone apps, which you may use once or twice a year. There is undoubtedly an app made for just about everything. This seems to be more prevalant in the iPhone App Store than the Android Market. Greater saturation, a more app-centric mentality and a lack of browser cache may be contributing factors.
OK, so what’s so bad about apps? Nothing really, except the ones that don’t really need to be a full-blown app, or serve only a single non-critical purpose. Examples being those that just load an existing webpage, unfortunately alot more common than you would hope. There may be a splash screen or a removal of status bar, but it’s still the same web page being loaded. The reasoning behind this is three-fold: Firstly, to save the user the trouble of finding the link to the website to put into the browser and/or bookmarking the link. Secondly, by existing in an app, the website or company now has prime real-estate on the user’s screen. This space is limited, a person can fit alot more bookmarks in their browser than they can fit apps on their home screens / drawer. Thirdly, it allows the company to advertise they have a smartphone app. They are modern, up to date, and brand value increases. Prime candidates are news web sites like FlightTrack, NY Times, Wired and Engadget, this really annoys me. There’s essentially nothing that can be done through the app that can’t be done through visiting the website in the browser or collecting updates through RSS. There are one-use scenarios which can be done easily and comprehensively through a well-designed website, but the allure and accessibility of having your presence on a centralised marketplace is much more tempting.
In short, sometimes there are apps where there need not to be apps. Let’s look at a situation where there is a strict requirement for an app that cannot be done otherwise. The obvious examples are, graphics and media (games/movies), sensor usage (GPS, timers, cameras) and access to resources/file system (file manager/offline notes/network tools). These generally work superbly and there is a solid technical reason why they exist as a package, rather than on a website (to access hardware resources/storage).
Another issue is storage space, it’s here we will depart on a tangent. Now laugh as you may, one of the major drawbacks in Android 2.1 and prior (it does not apply to the iPhone) is the limitation of storing applications on the internal ROM storage only. In the early phones like the G1, this was pegged at 256MB. Once the Android OS is installed and Dalvik cache generated, this brings it down to around 30MB or so available for your apps. Even though mobile apps are generally quite small (most of the ones I have installed are less than 500kB/1MB, although you get the occasional whopper at a few MB or more, sometimes for no apparent reason apart from poor coding), it still builds up quickly. Early G1 adopters who had rooted their phone then resorted to an implementation called APPS2SD, which redirected data read/writes for app storage on the ROM to a dedicated EXT2/3 partition on the SD card. Later Android phones had larger ROM capacity (512MB on the Nexus One / Desire, more on the Droid Incredible), which greatly alleviated this issue, but for those that went over about 100 total apps, then they would run into an ‘Out of Storage Space’ error. The good news is that with Froyo (Android 2.2), SD storage is now standardised and easily managed (I will write a guide on this later on), however it maybe a while before all Android phones receive the 2.2 update. Memory usage, however, itself is not a major concern, read here.
Then there’s clutter. If you’ve ever scrolled through pages and pages of applications to find the one you want, this is a frustrating experience. Even with folders and groupings (now standard in Android and iOS4), it can still get quite messy with limited desktop space. You can either install a modified homescreen with more icon space, use the integrated search function, or end up using all your home screens. For some functions, especially Google services, their web apps are smooth, streamlined and up to date. For example Google Reader, which I use often, has starring, tags, easy navigation all integrated and aimed at viewing on a small screen. I’ve tried using 3rd-party RSS readers on Android (namely gReed, NewsRob and others) but the synchronisation speed is abysmal. Often it would take 10-15 minutes to synchronise all news articles (from 340 subscriptions) before it was ready to be used. Then some articles would be marked read when they weren’t, news would be missed out on. The only benefit to this is being able to cache articles for a long-trip or if you’re out of mobile data service, or being able to use the volume buttons or pointing device to scroll between articles.
So what’s the solution? For me, it’s a compromise, either use multi-purpose apps that do many things well, or just bookmark the sites of which their app has no benefit over the website, and/or the information is not vital (examples being Currency Exchange, Weather, etc), and use an RSS reader or Twitter to get the news from the other sites. Since bookmarks can be viewed in a compact list form, take effectively no resources, it saves space, speeds things up and the net result is the same anyway.