We don't need more silos We need integration

An article, posted more than 6 years ago filed in opendata, open, data, ios, apple, microsoft, apps, mobile & android.

Apps are a great commercial succes. Every new operating system is claimed to be doomed. Still, most people use only 3 apps, 80% of the time (and 10 apps total 96% of the time).

We don't need more silos

While we cherish simple, little and focussed, these constitute a too limited view on what software could be. Not because simple, little and focussed is bad, but because many apps lack an important bit: interconnectivity. Most apps are silos.

We need integration

Integration nowadays is limited to simple sharing (typically ironically mostly urls) and a look and feel of the applications which is carefully described in Human Interface Guidelines that make things look integrated, like these: iOS UI guidelines and Android Material Design.

Still, while we should be talking about interactions and how we can collaborate in an interactive way, most developers and designers are focussing on optimising the experience within or around their single app. Not beyond that.

Instead, we should be thinking and talking more about integrated solutions where most of the ‘apps’ are merely plugins, extensions, enhancements or whatever, to our existing system, our existing flow of solving problems. Why should I make sure I first find the best app for the task at hand before I can actually start working? Why can’t we move towards buying small OS upgrades?

Sadly it seems like our lives won’t become less cluttered anytime soon. We now even got apps for Messages.

There is an extension for that?

So what should this future look like? Extensions should be about replacing core functionality in the system. Keeping the user experience consistent between apps and upgrading it. And no, I’m not just talking about a ‘custom keyboard’. We will still need apps, but we don’t need 6 different apps to play video’s from different platforms. We need a player app that plugs in the capability to play video’s from different platforms. Why do we have to check Vimeo, Youtube, iTunes, and and whatever app. Instagram should be an FX package added to all photo apps + a simple sharing network for photos. And if a user wants to use Dropbox, he or she should be able to use Dropbox, or OwnCloud, not just the iCloud/Google Drive that shipped with the device initially.

Barriers for adoption

Don’t change a winning team and economically the app-team is definitely on the winning hand. There are also quite some barriers for adoption: business models, boring experience,

Business models

The business models would be harder to make. Would Spotify even want to make an Music player plugin? Well, they’re making one for Sonos.

Apps are just means to an end, and very sellable ones. Codecs and extensions, in contrast, will probably make a much harder sell, as they wont get that confirmation as a logo on the home screen.

It’s boring

A risk of defining API’s for exchanging data is that the possibilities get dumbed down. See Facebook’s Instant Articles, which lack of identity I ranted about earlier. On the other hand: in some cases boring is just what we want. I don’t want to search that app that delivers me the best price/quality hotel + train. I just want that: the best price/quality hotel and train.

It’s hard to implement

Think of all the places where things can go wrong. And user experience of a good working app can be destroyed by a sloppy plugin. Many API’s also complicates privacy issues. We don’t want some messaging extension being able to copy an entire address book and sending it to some alien server.

We tried the semantic web and it failed

Academics may remember the semantic web vision (yes by Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the world wide web, written in 1998), but see the point above: It is hard. The API’s that the semantic web required weren’t easy to understand and very theoretical. Coordinating API’s is hard to do (as this video by OAuth inventer learns us :)), but see also the struggles of the killed (for the right reasons and by no-one other than Steve Jobs) OpenDoc project.

User Experience will always win

In the end user experience will win. Nowadays, the user experience of dedicated apps on a good platform is giving most users the best user experience. But it is not without friction: users don’t like to clutter their screens with hundreds of apps. We want computers, including our mobiles, to do more and more work for us, with less and less friction. And that simply requires systems that allow for integration and mixing of services and tools.

Image by: Eirik Refsdal (CC-BY licensed)

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