A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend the first designpush - working with some designers and some developer folks from chrome+mozilla. Our chosen topic was the emerging standard for webintents (follow that link for a better summary of it than I could give) – a standard for connecting applications based on what the user is intending to do. “Oh you want to share? Just press this button and your browser will find the service you use for that.”
With webintents, the pain of a developer needing to know which services to present to users goes away (how many variations on the share button are there in the world??), as does the idea that developers have to build in lots of functionality themselves. If it takes off (a major strategic/design challenge in itself), the impact would be huge. Developers could add an awful lot of value to an existing app without much effort.
For users the (not-so) interesting part is this: you might no longer need to remember what you use to solve these little first-world problems. Perhaps I could edit a flickr photo using photoshop.com right within flickr, instead of having to download, upload, edit, save, and upload again. Or more interestingly, I could pay for something without having to have an account with *insert abusive, monopolistic payment gateway here* as the site owner requires me to.
One thing that occurred to me during the opening talks was this: if that pain-point is gone, and services can plug-in to each other at will, then what exactly is an app any more? When I use my iphone, I’m often forced to remember which app I’m supposed to use for a task. My iphone doesn’t have ten screens of apps (unlike some geeks I know!), yet I still struggle… “where is that thing again… what’s it called? What does the icon look like?”.
This is, of course, the problem that Siri is trying to solve, with decidedly mixed results. I think the interest in the Siri API is instructive: if Siri could take care of which app you use to remember the milk, or which one tells you your bank balance, then we’re not really caring about the app any more, are we? Maybe never even need to look at it. Install once, then….. forget?
My tired little brain got thinking about this after more ‘open web vs apps’ hand-wringing at the end of this article (warning, YASJA). From my point of view, the future is likely to make the ‘app’ as a recognisable, branded, marketed, identifiable concept somewhat redundant, if Siri is any indication of the future. Certainly the way we think of them now is feeling old already: apps might be in the background of whatever we’re up to in future.
This idea isn’t new. In The Humane Interface - Jef Raskin proposes the idea that stand-alone desktop applications should die – “every software package should be structured as a set of tools available to users on any document”. A less pessimistic way of thinking about it is this; there might be destination services (get them eyeballs, future facebook!) and then tool apps which simply facilitiate anonymously between them.
I have no idea what the commercial future is, but here’s my (probably broken) analogy: imagine our future use of the internet somewhat like the way an open source operating system currently works – lots of independently written bits of opaque code working together to produce a whole. It will require some incredible API code-fu (go developers!), and some magical interface/platform thing that changes how we interface with technology (go designers!), but hey, we all know it’s coming, right?
When, not if.