20% of My iPhone Apps Are Worthless

Our guest blogger, Matt Topper, is a friend of the Lab, an ex-Oracle Ace, turned Oracle employee who always has something to say. He’s currently running the identity management team for Oracle’s National Security group, playing with Collok in his free time to fix the conference experience.

The other day Eddie tweeted that he was installing the new Facebook on his iPhone. It got me to thinking about why so many of the Web 2.0-type sites are developing custom iPhone applications instead of building a mobile version of their website. I remember Kevin Rose talking about Digg’s iPhone application, a simple web app, instead of a custom Cocoa application. It took them less than 48 hours to roll out the slimmed down web based interface, I can guarantee if it was a native iPhone app it would have taken much longer.

In going through the list of apps on my phone I realized that nearly 20% are traditional web applications thinly disguised as “custom” apps. I can understand the games, notes, and calculator apps being thick, but what about Facebook, LinkedIn, Wikipanion, Sportacular and even Twinkle (twitter).

It just seems that the development resources for those apps would have been much better off staying with what they are good at…building web applications with a slimmed down interface to run over Safari. Instead they learned a new language, probably had to add additional APIs, ran the risk of Apple rejecting their app, and then dealing with the app store. They have to add another layer to track readership, integrate a new ads platform to pay for their app, etc., etc., etc. I just seems like a lot of work for little reward. Yes they get the distribution and the “coolness” factor of the Apps Store, but how hard would it be for Apple to create “Certified Web Apps.”

I can even take a web bookmark and make an icon on the iPhone home page as I’ve done with my Google calendar.

With the launch of Android and the strong presence of Symbian on the Nokia phones in Europe, thats four separate platforms (plus the countless others, PPC, Palm, J2ME, etc.) that developers have to learn, maintain code, provide support, the list goes on. It’s quickly going to develop into a major headache for most of these companies, most of whom could just extend the controllers and views of their existing apps based on the HTTP request User Agent.

I don’t know, maybe its just me, but I tend to look towards the long term effects of developing additional software interfaces instead of jumping on the bandwagon of the next cool thing. If it makes sense and drastically improves the user experience I’m all for it, but none of these apps have anything to offer over their web based cousin. Maybe faster load times, maybe caching of images and authentication data, but that’s not enough to sell me.

Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place for thick apps on the iPhone. Google Maps is definitely a good example of that, then again, with the W3C Geolocation API and the integration into Google Gears that might be going away too. Feel free to call me crazy and point out the pieces I forgot. I just feel that its the start of a slippery path that ultimately ends up with dissatisfied users and too much code to maintain. Hopefully I don’t stir up too much trouble and the AppsLab guys invite me back for more guest blogs in the future.


  1. Agreed. But I do think that the google gears technology, or whatever other technology will allow offline web browsing needs to be able to be built into the iphone before web-apps can really come to fruition for the platform. I would love to be able to use google calendar for my calendar application, but the fact that I always want to update/check it when I'm on the tube (London underground, where there's no signal) puts me off from making the transition. I'm not saying this is anywhere close to being the main reason why people aren't creating web-apps, but it's definitely one of the reasons I'm not using them as much as I would!

  2. I'm actually surprised the tube doesn't have wireless coverage, that sounds like a business model waiting to happen.

    I agree, offline apps are going to grow like gangbusters with the pipes to everyone's home getting bigger. Between Gears, Air, Shoes, and traditional thick apps its an exciting time to be a developer. I'm just waiting for the day when we're back on mainframe (with some new fancy buzzword) and all the old cobol guys get to give us an, “I told you so.”

  3. Only 20%?

    I agree with your points about iPhone app vs. a Safari-based, optimized for iPhone web apps and wasted effort. The Facebook app is a good example; it was one of the best web apps on the iPhone, and now it's one of the best apps on the iPhone. Functionally, the two are very similar, and you wonder why they bothered, aside from cool factor.

    Stepping outside the iPhone, developing mobile web apps is a nightmare. Check out Jason Grigsby's slides for crazy stats on the number of platforms and differences between hardware. Even the same mobile O/S won't behave the same way between different devices. I'm guessing Android will also have this issue.

    Mobile web is fascinating, but challenging.

  4. What about the business model as many apps charge a fee? Perhaps it won't be too complex to figure out how to establish a web-based mobile app business model that bypasses the app stores…

    Android has a nice stack with Gears that will help developers and customers (faster UI if they can store persistent data on the device.) I think the complexity that Android faces is how they manage various screen sizes inherent with each hardware platform it supports. Apple doesn't have to worry about this with the iPhone.

    Would Apple benefit from a Gears solution added to its iPhone stack?

  5. I wonder about how Gears would integrate into the iPhone stack, since Apple is so guarded with core O/S functions like background processing. Seems like Gears would need to be tweaked heavily to get around the limitations.

    I wonder how long before someone gets Android running on an unlocked iPhone?

  6. I don't know about the more technical aspects. Apple partners with Google already on the iPhone. I bet if they thought it would work and add value, they could make it happen through licensing. I don't know if they'd let developers have access to it — Especially if it detracted from sales on the AppStore…

    That's interesting regarding Android on an unlocked iPhone. Think i'd want to run it in a VMware session! Too bad the iPhone specs aren't robust enough to support something like that.

  7. Dunno how much value Gears would add, but that's true in general, not just on the iPhone. Lots of promise, but not a lot delivered yet.

    I'm sure someone will try to put Android on it. Not sure that will fly though, due to Apple's hardware quirks.

  8. Guest Blogger Matt,

    I tried a whole load of iPhone Apps and removed them (I don't like clutter), I have a handful left that I do use. A good example to your point; I tried twitterific and twinkle but I find mobile twitter loads fast and works fine (what's not to work, requirement: let me insert 140 characters) so I junked those two.

  9. I prefer Hahlo, the iPhone web-optimized app, to any of the Twitter apps. I like its features better, and it's just as fast. I've kept more apps than I use regularly, but that's more a just-in-case measure, e.g. Movies.

  10. I agree, it could be a business model, but I don't think I've seen any of the commercial apps written by the owning company become a pay app. Twinkle, twitteriffic, etc. have pay versions, but they aren't developed by Twitter.

    I would love to see the iPhone run gears or Android phones run cocoa apps. The money is really in the distribution of the apps themselves, control the platform, control the store, you own the market. I think we'll see more platforms go that way in the future.

  11. I'm still a twinkle / twitteriffic user. I have multiple accounts that I play with on Twitter and logging in and out of the web interface I find tedious. If you could have a PKI key on your phone that would pass through Safari to authenticate me I'd be in heaven.

    OK, this is the appslab blog, less technical talk, more techno fluff.

  12. Technical talk is good, and there would be more if Rich decided to blog more. You're welcome to add more technical content if you're missing it.

  13. Bring on the coding examples!

    Seriously, I raised this point in another context – while I am not a technical person myself, I recognize that many Oracle people are, and therefore I have no objection if PKI keys or whatever are inserted into conversations.

    I for one will not try to “FTB” techie talk.

  14. Perhaps the breadth of the tube has slowed the adoption of wireless coverage. It's probably easier to justify such things in areas with higher tech concentrations of people.

  15. Check this out: http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/08/10/03/l

    One unpublicized feature introduced by Apple's latest iPhone software updates is the ability to save Web apps to the home screen and have them launch in full-screen mode without the Safari wrapper, essentially mimicking the experience of a native app.

    Clancy, an AppleInsider reader who brought the matter to our attention, believes the undocumented feature arrived as part of the most recent iPhone Software 2.1 update. He notes that the capability is only present in Web applications specifically authored to include the full-screen code.

  16. Very interesting. I hope to see this in action soon. Did you notice that Apple missed its self-imposed release date for notifications? I guess we'll have to wait even longer for that hack to provide background processing.

  17. I did see that. The MobileMe/Firmware 2.0 snafu has likely caused Apple to place more emphasis on introducing features that better deliver on their promises from the start.

    On another front, Apple's also since dropped the NDA that prevented developers from collaborating more fully.

  18. Actually I like having these things be applications. Without that I might never think to use them. Yes, I know this gets me thrown off the “technical” island but I'm just saying I like searching the application store and finding something that says “Facebook' there for me that puts the icon on my desktop for me. Maybe the real answer is to make that “application” be very lightweight so that there isn't much extra development work to offer this convenience to me.

  19. But we already had that before the App Store with the iPhone-optimized version of FB, saved to the Home Screen complete with a snazzy iPhone icon.

    It's functionally identical to the app version, right down to the nice icon. So, you wonder why FB bothered to commit the resources to building an app. Now maybe if the app supported FB chat running in the background, it would be worth it, but as we know, nothing can run in the background unless it's built by Apple.

    This is the same story with many of the apps. Don't get me started on the useless, I mean “fun”, apps.

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