The word of the year in 2010 was “app”. Everyone is talking about it now, but both you and me have been using apps ever since we first used a personal computer. What has changed is the prevalence of mobile devices that are particularly good at doing at one thing at a time. The desktop computer (or laptop) on the other hand, has evolved from being able to do only one thing at a time to the multitasking beast it is today. Yet, the fact remains that as humans we can’t really multitask, though we can fake it by doing really fast context switching (just like a computer!). I think this is the main reason behind why apps are so successful on mobile devices.
Apple, as usual, knocked it out of the park with their mobile app store. And since then we’ve seen a landslide of app stores open up on several different platforms with varying degrees of success. Linux has had ‘package managers’ for more than a decade, there are even some with fancy GUI front-ends that many consider to be an app store. But they lack the (semi-)curated nature of Apple’s store, and not to mention shiny icons. Users like the shiny stuff. No doubt, apps are here to stay.
The role of Statefulness
As a result, we’ve been thinking a lot about how this model translates to the web. It used to be that the web was just a very large collection of (mostly) static pages. Large parts of the web still are (eg. Wikipedia), but we also observe another breed of content on the web that is highly personalized (eg. Facebook). This changes the nature of something fundamental about the web, and what a hyperlink means. A decade ago, when you linked to a web page you expected the recipient to see more or less what you saw; but today that may not be true. In many cases the recipient will experience a ‘personalized’ version of the same content, and in cases like Gmail, hyperlinks don’t even make sense because the entire website is for your consumption only.
The web is now more stateful than ever (even though the underlying protocols haven’t changed to reflect this - but that is a topic for another blog post) and I think web apps are a great way to capture the essence of such stateful websites. I certainly recognize that traditional web pages aren’t going anywhere; but that the web has simply evolved to serve several different use-cases. There are times when all I want to do is just read an article, watch a video or post an anonymous comment (haven’t we all done that!). But, a lot of the time I am using the web in a very personal way and apps are a great way for me encapsulate that activity.
Open Web Applications
Today, we made an integration release of the Open Web Applications project; which, in its most basic form, is a culmination of our answer to the question: “What is a open web app?”. We define the term as applications that run on any device, and can be distributed through any store or directly by the developer. But that is just the tip of the iceberg – formulating a way for web applications to present themselves to the user agent is just the first step. Here are a few ideas on what we think might have great impact on the ways in which users interact with web content:
Dynamic service discovery: Web applications should be able register themselves with the browser as being able to provide one or more services, which, after authorization by the user, could be used by another web application. In this scheme, the browser plays the role of the mediator between two web applications and the user; providing a greater level of flexibility and modularity in the flow of user data than the web has ever seen. Mike Hanson has discussed this idea in detail before, and you should read that blog post to understand the why and the how.
Wherever you go, the web follows: Firefox Sync allows you to carry your browser data with you, but we can extend this even further by synchronizing application state. The web application framework provides a great way for developers to specify what the best user experience for someone using their application across multiple devices in succession should be. This reminds me of the old Hutch ads (a mobile network in India, now Vodafone); where the web is your metaphorical pug that follows you wherever you go ;)
These are just some of the ideas that we’ve come up with so far, and I am sure there are many possibilities we haven’t even thought of yet. If you are considering writing an application and are targeting multiple environments (say, Mac, Windows, Linux, the iOS and Android based devices), we think web technologies make a very compelling choice. We would love to know what Mozilla can do make the ‘app experience’ much richer for both users and developers!