On this week’s episode of TWiG, http://twit.tv/twig37, Jeff Jarvis discussed an interesting concept. That mobile apps are anti-discovery. He talked about the fact that media companies make apps to have complete control over their content and by doing so they limit the options to access the content to this one portal. He compares these apps to “Silos,” contect in side and only coming out the other. He points out that this kind of content distribution will ultimately fail just like Encyclopedias on CD-ROMs failed.
This notion stuck me as odd and far fetched at first, but then I found my self agreeing with him completely. The turning point for me was the realization that I don’t have any mobile apps that fit into this category. The majority of apps I use on a daily basis are just mobile UIs, that only exist to make it easier for me to access content on a smaller screen with a touch interface. I have avoided apps like the Wall Street Journal, Popular Science, and The Elements without even knowing it.
I get all my news from a variety of websites and I aggregate them together into an RSS reader. I have a personalized newspaper that continually updates itself with the the stories that might interest me. I have an app on my phone to access the aggregate, but I can also check it on any computer, mobile device, or anything with a data connection. The app is just a portal to access my data. I’m not locked into a single platform or a single app. So if I loose my phone, or the battery dies, the screen cracks, or any other techno-accident takes place I can still access my news with no loss in information. This also allows me to share the information that I found with anyone else, not just people who are on the same system or app as I am.
Apps like The Elements: A Visual Exploration
are a whole other pile of silo-shit. This app takes a $29.99 book and turns it into a $13.99 application hat only runs on the iPad. The Apps looks amazing with its examples of the elements in independently spinning eye candy, but does it really offer anything in functionality? Nope. All the information contained in this app is also contained in the front cover of any 8th grade science book, or a poster in any college co-ed room with a focus in chemistry. The app is completely irrelevant to anyone in the sciences, because it doesn’t present the relevant information correctly. For the general population after the initial eye-candy-sugar-high wears off you can’t sell the app to the next sucker or lend it to a friend, you’re just stuck with it.
The apps that I like provide either functional utility or that offers a user interface of an existiting web service. I mentioned RSS readers earlier and I currently use Byline to sync to my Google reader account. It provides a great UI with all the functionality I want from my RSS reader. But i can also check my feeds at google.com/reader when ever I want. I use Tweetie to check and post to my twitter. BeeJive for IM. Wikipanion for winning bets. The list goes on and on. But the one thing that all my apps have in common is that none of them are a solid pipe from the the content to my phone, the content is all accessible from anywhere. Why would I ever pay money to get information, on one propitiatory device, that is readily available everywhere. I’ll pay money to make it the experience easier and more functional on one device though.
In conclusion, apps as silo pipes = Shit. Apps as UI overlays = Good