Browsers, the quintessential and supremely flexible Web application that can morph from video player to newspaper to photo gallery with the simple change of a URL has been usurped in the mobile era by the app. These single purpose walled gardens create an irresistibly convenient alternative that is optimized for the small screen and limited navigational space of a smartphone. Much like TV created popular new entertainment genres like sitcoms and miniseries, distinct from movies and designed to both mitigate the medium’s limitations and exploit its advantages, the mobile app has surpassed the browser to become the window to the Internet. But what the app giveth in the form of convenience, a slick interface and focused feature it also taketh away in home screen clutter, lack of searchability and silos of information and functionality.
Apps tend to Balkanize the Internet, sacrificing browser universality for convenience, specialization and a slick UI. I have previously argued the benefits of mobile apps, primarily because of the superior user experience, however the intervening years of app proliferation have revealed some hidden costs. In contrast to the ease, universality and accuracy of Web search, it’s impossible to find information outside an app’s moat of topics, nor is it always obvious. Yes, searching within the app is likely to produce relevant results for a given topic, but changing topics means switching apps. Even selecting the best app for a particular set needs is usually a trial-and-error proposition.
But what if the mobile app user experience could be delivered with browser convenience, state management, resource footprint and searchability? Perhaps a combination of OS-supported app streaming and predictive, Google Now-like notifications could usurp the need for a hodgepodge of locally-installed apps. Read on for details about how Google will likely be using a combination of app streaming (from a recent technology acquisition) and predictive notifications to reduce our reliance on dozens of ghettoized apps targeting various niche categories. As one developer puts it, “This is the beginning of the end for apps as destinations. Why open the app when you don’t need to? Let’s take this a step further.”