Apps vs. the web: how do you read your favorite content?

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If you own a smartphone, you generally have two different options when you want to read web content. You can either open up your phone's web browser and read the content online (like you do on your computer), or you can download an app from the content provider and read the content from the app. The content itself is generally the same, but the presentation can be dramatically different.

Even though there are very good reasons to stay away from apps, the fact of the matter is that most iPhone/iPad apps provide a much smoother experience than mobile websites. I still personally prefer to read content from my phone online (Google Reader has a great mobile site), but I can understand why people prefer using apps, or iPad magazines.

I'm not writing this post to convince you to stop using apps on your mobile devices. You should use what you like. However, I do want to convince you that there's no real reason for most apps to be so much better. Everyone talks about how much nicer they look (which is true), but it's important that everyone understands that there's no real reason for the differences in design. When you develop an iPhone app, you can decide what every single pixel on the screen should look like. When you develop a mobile website, you can decide what every single pixel should look like. You can literally make a website look pixel-for-pixel the exact same as an iphone app.

You might be confused. Why did I say that iPhone apps are more attractive than mobile websites if they both have the exact same capabilities? I'm a little baffled by this myself. For some reason, when companies make iPhone apps, they put a lot of effort into the design. They don't seem to care about the design on mobile apps. That's just the way things are.

The problem is that mobile apps are setting back technology as a whole. We spent the past 10 years moving away from closed, platform-specific desktop applications (Microsoft Office for example) in favor of great web apps which are much more accessible and run on any device. These web apps still have a long way to go, but they get better every day. However, Steve Jobs has single-handedly convinced everyone to abandon all that progress and go back to the 1990's. People no longer want open software. They no longer want platform agnosticism. They want their apps to look shiny, and if that means selling out to Apple, so be it.

Well I like shiny things too. I get it. I understand why people are paying for apps instead of using free mobile websites. I just want you to understand that there's no real technical reason why most downloadable apps are better than their web-based counterparts. The next time you want to read an article from Wired Magazine and you decide to pay $4.99 for the app instead of reading it for free online, just keep in mind that you're doing it because wired decided to make a crappy website, not because apps are fundamentally better.

One day mobile apps will start moving to the web the same way desktop apps have been for the past decade. When that happens, I hope you don't fight it because you think that apps on your phone are better for some reason. Just keep an open mind.

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