Steering away from apps

pią 12 kwietnia 2019

As of writing this, seems like I'm almost managing to write one post per year – good for me! What triggered this one is my recent discovery of Duolingo's mobile website, which is apparently quite functional, and to a resonable degree it eliminates the need to have a Duolingo app on your phone. Fantastic!

But why is it fantastic, you may ask? Why would you torment yourself with a half-assed website instead of installing an app? Why, I'm glad you asked. You are such a good reader!

One significant deal-breaker could be the fact that apps are always, inherently, only supported on some mobile OSes. Most of the time it's easy enough to get ahold of some sort of Android phone, but then a new version of the app may not be supported on a phone as old as the one you have. Or maybe it's dependent on Google Play Services, which your variant of Android doesn't support.

But even with those out of the way, I think that most apps do not, and should not, be apps anymore. Yes, there was a time when the only sensible way to put software on a mobile device was to write an app. There was a time when you'd be severely limited in what you can do with your software unless you build an app. These days however, I think this time is long gone.

Most of the mobile apps these days seem to be basically an interface to a service running somewhere on the internet. Most of the time they barely do anything else than connecting to some webserver. They pretty much never need any functionality than the one that the most obvious way of connecting to an internet service could already provide – and by the most obvious way I mean of course the web browser.

Now, I hate modern web technologies just as much as the other guy – even though (or perhaps thanks to the fact that) I work with them almost daily these days. But truth is, with all its quirks and oddities, web as a technology stack has become amazingly functional compared to what it used to be: and missing less and less compared to the “native” technologies. The webmail that I'm currently working on can be used fully offline, together with a client-side search index for all the messages – no wonder we barely call these things “webpages” anymore!

There is very little reason why you'd need a permanently installed piece of software (that requires semi-manual updates) on your device anymore. You don't put a Twitter app on your desktop, do you? When was the last time you had Google Earth installed? On desktop, somehow, we got used to the fact that everything is a website and we have billions of tabs open and somehow endure this mess – to the point where a lot of “desktop apps” released these days are just a web browser bundled with a specific website. And people actually like it and use it happily!

So why didn't the same thing happen on mobile? Why do we still install things on our phones? Why doesn't my bank try to get me to install an app on my desktop, but will torment with a full-screen popup every time I try to do something on my phone? (Fuck you, mBank)

Well, there are still some legitimate reasons to have something installed on your phone permanently. Some of those are security reasons: this is why MyEtherWallet websites discourages you from using it with your locally stored keys – because there is many ways in which it could be replaced by something else without you noticing. It'd be much safer to have something installed locally that you know will not change by itself. This reasoning could also be applied to banking apps, and perhaps that is a legitimate reason after all. But I find it hard to justify when I still do 99% of my banking on a website on my other computer. In any case, the OTP software that I use is still an actual phone app.

If an app uses massive amounts of data for itself, is intended for offline use and/or requires significant hardware resources like car navigation software for instance, it's still quite reasonable to put it on your phone. Maybe with all the webassembly, webgl and all that it could be reasonably implemented as a webapp, but I'll believe it when I see it, and use HERE WeGo before that happens.

Some of the navigation-related needs do not need an app at all though – and as much as Uber, MyTaxi or whatever else will push it on you, there is absolutely no reason why you'd want a ridehailing app on your phone – I assure you that it would work perfectly fine if it was a regular website. How can I be so sure?

Because it does. Uber has a perfectly functional mobile website at m.uber.com. It used to lack some minor features (like rating drivers, which you could still do on a desktop website), but nowadays it seems to be doing everything the app can do already. I use it weekly-ish and it works perfectly fine – and since it's a regular website I can just closed it and be sure that it doesn't track my location anymore.

At this point you may wonder: why would all those companies go through all the trouble of releasing an app usually for at least 2 different platforms when they could've just made a website that works everywhere? It is possible that third party contractors that make apps for phones are simply cheaper than the ones that make good mobile websites. You could also tell yourself that they honestly care about maintaining an “Android feel” of their app more than they care about pushing their own brand and their own UI patterns.

But I don't think that it's the case – the evidence that I can see suggests that they do it because it because it's easier to make money on people that use an app than people that just use a website. Just like every other website these days includes dozens of different trackers in order to make some money off of you, similarly apps will sell your info to advertisers without your knowledge. And think how much more they can figure out from a device that you carry everywhere, all the time, than just a web browser that you happen to be using – that's a goldmine right there!

And think of all the advertising opportunities – no need to even ask for permissions anymore. You have an icon on a screen that people will spend hours a day looking at. You can change it to interest them, put indicators on it, push phone-wide notifications whenever you feel like it – the possibilities are endless! And unlike with a plain old website, the user may not have any means of controlling it. And that's not even touching the fact that it's significantly more tricky to put an adblocker on your phone than it is on your web browser – the “one weird trick that advertisers hate” almost completely negated if you can convince people to “install our app”.

Apps are not your friends. They're not there to make your life better. They're more sophisticated, more efficient tools for other people to milk you. You may be okay with that, and you may feel that it's fair that people get to sell you better if they're giving you things “for free”. But if you're anything like me (and you've read this far down, so something tells me that you either think alike or you're having one hell of a time scrolling through and shaking your head at what a paranoid idiot I am. You're both welcome :)), you're probably not happy about this either.

Fortunately, this is not how it has to be. And there's really not much of a fight you need to put up. It's really as simple as just not using apps – they already have their own alternatives, and the more we use them the more likely they'll improve further.

Get rid of the Uber app – just use their website from now on. I don't have a hint for you if you're using some other taxi-like service – I'd happily use them if they provided the website, but right now I'm happy to give business to someone who does.

Uninstall Duolingo. You don't need the notification reminders, they email you every day anyway. Use the website instead, complain when it's broken.

Some websites, like Reddit (fuck you, Reddit) will do their best to discourage you from using their website and to install an app instead. Thankfully, a competent mobile browser will have extensions at your disposal to make the experience less annoying.

I know, I know – this weird privacy freak is asking you to become an internet amish again. Sorry :) But again, if you feel like I feel, there's a chance you'll like this more than the current state of things. And, like me, you may not even know that alternatives exist. Give it a shot, and tell me how it went :)

Feel free do discuss on Mastodon. I may ActivityPub-ize this blog at some point :)

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