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How Mobile Apps Are Reinventing the Worst of the Software Industry 333

An anonymous reader writes "Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Stack Overflow, says the mobile app ecosystem is getting out of hand. 'Your platform now has a million apps? Amazing! Wonderful! What they don't tell you is that 99% of them are awful junk that nobody would ever want.' Atwood says most companies trying to figure out how to get users to install their app should instead be figuring out just why they need a mobile app in the first place. Fragmentation is another issue, as mobile devices continue to speciate and proliferate. 'Unless you're careful to build equivalent apps in all those places, it's like having multiple parallel Internets. "No, sorry, it's not available on that Internet, only the iOS phone Internet." Or even worse, only on the United States iOS phone Internet.' Monetization has turned into a race to the bottom, and it's led to worries about just what an app will do with the permissions it's asking for. Atwood concludes, 'The tablet and phone app ecosystem is slowly, painstakingly reinventing everything I hated about the computer software industry before the web blew it all up.'"
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How Mobile Apps Are Reinventing the Worst of the Software Industry

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  • App permissions (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sinij ( 911942 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:03PM (#46338061)
    You don't need to guess what app is going to do with these permissions, you just assume it will abuse it, because it has no reason not to. What missing is ability to push back against unreasonable permission requests without having to root your device. Both Apple and Google dropped the ball on this.
  • by Zontar The Mindless ( 9002 ) <plasticfish DOT info AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:11PM (#46338163) Homepage

    98% of the functionality of these apps could have been done in a web page in '98.

  • Re:Bright Phone (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:16PM (#46338201) Homepage

    Google's fault for not allowing the USER to have control over permissions, I should allow the permissions, not the app.

  • by Kensai7 ( 1005287 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:19PM (#46338223)

    I suppose 98% of the rest 2% can be done today in HTML5. :)

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:22PM (#46338271)

    Developers need to further promote current and future web browser standards so we can have all the fancy functionality of the apps in a web page.

    As a developer, why would I want to do that? Lots of people will pay for an app. Almost no one will pay for a web page.

  • by labnet ( 457441 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:28PM (#46338359)

    98% of the functionality of these apps could have been done in a web page in '98.

    Exactly this. I'm so sick of going to some special interest forum, only having the page hijacked by, would you like to install our app. Wtf. Apps are becoming like web urls, but not as convenient.

  • Mobile app wisdom (Score:5, Insightful)

    by steveha ( 103154 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:29PM (#46338369) Homepage

    There's an old saying: To gain knowledge, add something every day; to gain wisdom, get rid of something every day. I'm not sure exactly how that is supposed to work (where does the wisdom come from?), but clearly you can choke your life if you accumulate too much stuff.

    And that's really true for mobile apps, which can choke your phone. Two years ago my wife's phone (Android 2.x) became unusable, and I discovered that she had installed five or six dozen free apps, and many of them had installed service daemons. (Why do workout tracking apps, cookbook apps, or lightweight games need daemons?) She made an effort to purge down to just the apps she needs.

    Even if you assume that the phone can handle all the apps, they still add chaff for you to sort when you are looking for the app you actually want to run.

    P.S. Jeff Atwood's rant was good, but he missed one of my pet peeves: I will click on a news story link in a blog or Slashdot or something, and the linked site will pop up a banner: Hey! Don't you want to install and use our mobile app? Why no, web site I have never heard of before, I really don't want to download and install your app. I just want to read the one story, and at the moment I'm reconsidering even that.

  • Re:App permissions (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dixie_Flatline ( 5077 ) <vincent.jan.goh@ ... om minus painter> on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:32PM (#46338403) Homepage

    How did Apple drop the ball, exactly?

    I've had apps ask me permission for my GPS, microphone and photos all individually. I've rejected allowing all those things at various times for various reasons with no problems. I've gone back and given permission later, or denied permission when I didn't want that functionality any more. Every app that requires location services asks me individually at the first moment it tries to use them if it's okay. If there's a flaw with the Apple system, I suppose you could say that it's that you get the same questions over and over again, or that apps that absolutely require certain permissions (photo editing apps need access to your photos, duh) can't get them automatically. (But honestly, I don't mind answering that question.)

    I test-drove a Nexus 4 for a week, and it really grated on my nerves that I had to give permissions at time of download, couldn't revoke any of them, and had to take it on faith that the app would play nice. No. Ask me for each individual thing, ask me each time.

  • Let's Recap (Score:4, Insightful)

    by The Cat ( 19816 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:33PM (#46338415)

    First, big software decided that the PC needed to become a television. Otherwise they would fail in their attempts to get your ass back on the couch.

    By then, the PC was too far gone, because the heathens were actually building their own operating systems and programming languages! The horror! We might lose control of the demographics!

    They needed a replacement for the PC, so they invented the smartphone. The smartphone is inferior to the PC in almost every way:

    1. Slower processor
    2. Less memory
    3. Almost no storage
    4. Slow, shitty, unreliable web access
    5. Can't be physically networked with anything at all ever
    6. Smaller screen
    7. Atrocious, shitty, primitive, clumsy touch interface
    8. Can't easily make use of any existing peripheral: printer, mouse, larger monitor, external storage, network
    9. Fuckall battery life
    10. Massively expensive on a capability-to-price ratio
    11. Annoying royal pain-in-the-ass noisemaker
    12. Makes everyone look like a jackass staring at it

    Naturally, the general public, after being fed a thin gruel of third-rate marketing hype, decided to pitch 30 years of advancement overboard and charge-card their new tamagotchis by the Chinese freighter-load. They gleefully accepted the shitty web browsing, shitty interface and shitty battery life because they could compile monuments of narcissism in the form of 1000-entry selfie albums.

    But that's not the best part!

    You see, now that the manufacturers have TOTAL CONTROL of the platform (which is something they desperately wanted with the PC but couldn't engineer, despite Microsoft's roaring campaign of evil in the 1990s) they can tell you what programming language to use, what kind of apps to write and how much money you can make from them.

    They have won. If you make apps, you are a defacto unpaid employee of Apple and/or Google doing exactly what you are told under pain of being kicked off the platform forever.

    The rest of you spend all day staring at a 2x3 screen. I think we know what that makes you.

    The results were rather predictable. Real programming and real programming languages have been largely exterminated. The idea of writing C on a development-centered operating system with a full suite of modern capabilities is dismissed by ignorant immature amateurs in favor of some kind of flimsy broken scripting language or worse.

    Programmers have no real access to the hardware. Your code is trapped forever, and is useless anywhere else, since its built only for that platform's API. Its also pretty much guaranteed to be obsolete in three years because there will be no hardware to run it.

    So we've made the software, the hardware and the developers disposable, and all the money goes to the phone makers, who are the only ones allowed to make anything of any real value.

    The whole country staring at a screen which only displays what they want it to display. (The Internet is next)

    Exactly the way they wanted it.

  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:34PM (#46338435)
    The proliferation of unnecessary apps on tablets and phones. There are maybe 2-3 dozen businesses and sites I interact with enough each year to warrant their own app. The rest I interact with infrequently or they're not a high enough priority (e.g. Slashdot) that I need to be constantly updated to their latest offering and features (e.g. Beta).

    The web browser model works really well for these low-priority interactions. I install an app on my computer for the important stuff (financial management, photo editing, code development, word processor, etc). But for all the not-so-important stuff, I install one app - a web browser. The browser then lets me make bookmarks to all those different low-priority sites.

    But in their zeal to monetize and get a hold of your data, most companies have crippled or entirely eschewed the mobile browsing experience in favor of their own custom app. Many sites detect my browser is on Android and redirect me to crippled or dysfunctional mobile versions of their sites, when my phone is more than capable of using their full site. The result is whereas I have about 40 programs installed on my laptop and about a thousand bookmarks, I have over 250 apps installed on my phone and only a dozen bookmarks. Management of those apps is starting to become unwieldy as every day a half dozen of them report that they need to be updated.

    I yearn for the days when all the less important stuff was just a bookmark in my browser. The browser was like a hub, and the connections between me and these less-important sites were like spokes. The hub-spoke model vastly decreased the number of spokes at my end. But by favoring or requiring dedicated apps in mobile space, these companies/sites have increased my workload and overhead by forcing me to maintain a lot more direct routes to their business/site.
  • by thecombatwombat ( 571826 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:43PM (#46338531)
    To paraphrase something a friend once said to me: "There was a time between 'AOL keyword [thing I'm interested in]' and "Search the App Store for [thing I'm interested in]' when the internet was a pretty cool place.
  • by tepples ( 727027 ) <{tepples} {at} {}> on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @04:53PM (#46338651) Homepage Journal

    Ask me for each individual thing, ask me each time.

    I thought such "mother may I" behavior was exactly what Apple's Mac commercials made fun of. (Cancel or allow? []) Condition people to just click OK, and they'll OK anything, no matter when or on what platform.

  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:09PM (#46338829)

    The smartphone is inferior to the PC in almost every way

    For real users, you have that backwards. For the technical elite what you are saying makes sense. Lets go over your points:

    1. Slower processor

    More like FAST ENOUGH processor. For what most people do, the processor on a smartphone is now FAST ENOUGH to do the same things. .2. Less memory

    ENOUGH MEMORY. If you can edit video and photos and write documents on a smartphone, it obviously has enough memory for most people.

    3. Almost no storage

    32GB is quite a lot of storage for what most people produce over a long period of time - and since smartphones are inherently networked devices it's kind of silly to complain about size of local storage.

    4. Slow, shitty, unreliable web access

    Less so than a PC. Often the PC web browsing has been exactly that when I was in a hotel room - until I tethered through my smart phone...

    5. Can't be physically networked with anything at all ever

    Which most people do not care about, and is an annoyance to set up. In that way it's superior not to have that option.

    6. Smaller screen

    It's enough for most people, especially the phablets.

    7. Atrocious, shitty, primitive, clumsy touch interface

    It's just different, and for lots of things people do (like scrolling/selecting) it is superior. It's also obviously superior to use touch over tiny physical keyboards, or there would still be a lot of devices sold with tiny physical keyboards instead of virtually none.

    8. Can't easily make use of any existing peripheral: printer, mouse, larger monitor, external storage, network

    You don't need a mouse with touch. Other than that, all your points are wrong - with AirPlay it's easy to take advantage of a larger TV. It's easy to print to any WiFi supporting printer with iOS, and it's easy to make use of any network I like (including VPN access).

    9. Fuckall battery life

    Excuse me? Most people use laptops these days, and smartphones have VASTLY better battery life than most laptops.

    10. Massively expensive on a capability-to-price ratio

    The fact that people are buying them even so shows that people value convenience over any of the points you raise.

    Your other points are two stupid to respond to, as is the rest of your message - or presumably whatever you have to say in response.

    The truth is that smartphones and tablets have saved normal people from computers being truly usable and useful only to a minority of the technical elite. You hate that normal people are able to use computers. Well I say, I want everyone to benefit from the power of computation and am not willing to make them suffer for it.

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:13PM (#46338885)

    Are more willing because it is a rarity to have a well-designed mobile page that has the same functionality as an app

    I very much disagree. People are unwilling to pay for even good quality web content. They are quite happy to pay for crappy apps. It is not about giving people "quality", but about giving them a sense of ownership.

  • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:14PM (#46338887)

    Elegance is always defined by the lack of complexity, not by the addition of it.

    Not necessarily. You can have something that is both elegant and complex. It's just more difficult to pull off. While as a rule of thumb you are correct that simpler does more often result in something elegant, elegance is not defined by simplicity. The two are independent concepts.

    That said I do tend to like Colin Chapman's [] philosophy of "simplify, then add lightness". Minimalism can be a very beautiful thing.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:14PM (#46338889)

    You can compare it to the flood of software in the late 80s / early 90s if you want but at least a large amount of that came from genuine attempts to sell you a game or product even if most of those products weren't really very good. It was just bad software from inexperienced developers with the odd gem when people actually got it right.

    These days a lot of these aren't about selling you a product at all, the primary purpose of a lot of these garbage apps is to get at your data. Worse still a lot of it is boilerplate UI code with a bit of custom branding driving repackaged open source software (because so many licenses permit that as long as the source is made available) with some extra bits of code designed to get at whatever data you have on your phone that might be profitable in some way.

    What we've ended up with are thousands of apps trying to steal your data while providing the exact same functionality as other apps.

    Worse still is most of them are then designed to sell you extra stuff, the 'free' ones are often free-to-play models far worse than anything we had back in the day. There are micropayments everywhere and by the time you've worked out that a piece of software has nothing unique to offer you've often spent a lot more money than you realise reaching that conclusion.

  • Re:App permissions (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dixie_Flatline ( 5077 ) <vincent.jan.goh@ ... om minus painter> on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:19PM (#46338973) Homepage

    The assumptions are simple: assume that the user hasn't given you permission to do anything. Your app may be useless at that point, but it shouldn't crash. It should just not do anything. If the user then asks the app to search their contacts, you ask them for permission to the contacts again. It happens all the time in iOS apps.

  • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:29PM (#46339101)

    The smartphone is inferior to the PC in almost every way:

    Really? It fits in my pocket, lasts longer on battery than my laptop, it weighs (far) less, it is a phone, I can take pictures with it, it doesn't require a mouse or keyboard to be useful, I can use it to navigate places where I can't take a PC, I can take it places I would never take a PC, I don't have to worry (much) about malware, it wakes up instantly, I can run with it and listen to music while running, it has sensors like accelerometers that aren't very useful on a PC and certainly never are standard. "Inferior in every way"? Pul-leeeze.

    BTW most of your points about why it is "worse" are either complete nonsense or only make sense if you foolishly think that a smartphone should be a PC. If you want to use a PC, go right ahead. No one is standing in your way.

    (oh and if you're thinking of making some snarky "drink the cool-aid" remark, just go ahead and stuff it)

  • by morgauxo ( 974071 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:31PM (#46339121)

    It's not just the software industry it's the hardware one too.

    In the PC market open standards beat out closed propriety hardware a long time ago. With the Desktop PC we enjoyed the ability to connect nearly any peripheral regardless of the manufacturer of the device or the PC. Hardware was modular and pieces could be upgraded or replaced with ones from just about any other manufacturer. Because of standards across the hardware alternative software could be installed other than what the manufacturer originally included.

    I realize that much of this modularity would be difficult or impossible to implement in a cellphone-sized device. However, Imagine switching between Android, Maemo or Windows8 as easily as you can switch between Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, etc... on a desktop! Proprietary chips and locked bootloaders make this pretty much impossible. How about being able to plug just any USB (or similar bus) device into your phone and actually expect it to work?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:32PM (#46339141)

    Ask me for each individual thing, ask me each time.

    I thought such "mother may I" behavior was exactly what Apple's Mac commercials made fun of. (Cancel or allow? []) Condition people to just click OK, and they'll OK anything, no matter when or on what platform.

    The important distinction is that iOS asked for your permission when the app wants to do something sensitive, whereas Windows asks for you to confirm an action you took. Psychologically this is the difference between "Billy wants to punch you in the face. Allow/Deny", and "Are you sure you want to insult Billy's mother? Continue/Cancel"

  • Re:App permissions (Score:4, Insightful)

    by BasilBrush ( 643681 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:34PM (#46339159)

    The pair of you seem confused between app permissions and a now fixed vulnerability in the built in browser.

    And what do you mean hide? Despite the fact that it was in open source software, the vulnerability was discovered internally at Apple, and they issued a patch. If they had actually wanted it there they wouldn't have patched it, they'd have said nothing.

  • Re:Let's Recap (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @05:48PM (#46339297) Journal

    By then, the PC was too far gone, because the heathens were actually building their own operating systems and programming languages! The horror! We might lose control of the demographics!

    Wait a second. What operating system stole PCs away from Microsoft Windows? In order for what you say to make sense, Microsoft would have had to have lost control over PCs (which still hasn't happened) to Linux, and so in turn Microsoft decided to dominate Smartphones instead, which also has not happened. Smartphones actually caused the opposite. It wrested control away from Microsoft to an OS created by a competitor (iOS), and another OS that is open source (Linux / Android). Second, what programming languages? Most all serious software written for Windows is through Visual Studio (C++ and later C#), although to a very small extent (as in a tiny, tiny percentage of Windows Apps) Java applications. No other programming languages represent much more than a footnote in the millions of Windows applications.

    In other words, it's exactly the opposite of what you said.

  • agreed (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Virtucon ( 127420 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @06:00PM (#46339407)

    Yeah, most of these apps are just facades for what can be done with a browser but they also have built in tracking and other tools to scavenge more data off of your mobile device than a browser would usually allow. To be honest, I believe that is the big reason for all these little do-nothing apps that have popped up especially the immensely popular "ring tone apps" in the Google Play Store for example. Yes we've had the same kind of annoy/malware for desktop apps that embed Firefox, IE etc. but the installation process is a bit more involved than going to a play/app store and clicking install. I'd also liken it to what's happening on SourceForge with this new Dice installer crapware that puts other shit on your system. It's not only bad practice but it also makes me distrust the software I'm trying to install. Google does the same kind of things with Chrome / Google Drive etc. and even after you uninstall them you'll still find little updaters and other crapware that Google leaves around that you have to manually go and remove.

  • by The Cat ( 19816 ) on Tuesday February 25, 2014 @06:37PM (#46339735)


    Then it's not a computer. It's a television.

    After that, the question becomes why is it so important to Apple, et al. to take computing away from their customers? They didn't (and still don't) do it on the Mac. Why are they so insistent that it be taken away on mobile?

    And it's not costs, because it costs more to lock the machine down than it does to leave it open.

    Why was everyone so quick to toss the PC overboard? Why is everyone so quick to toss the web overboard? Simple. They can't control them. But they can control the phone, and that's why they want you to prefer it: so they can control you.

  • Jobs was right (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tom ( 822 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @04:09AM (#46343361) Homepage Journal

    Steve was right that the iPhone doesn't need apps because it has the web and people should be writing web-apps.

    Well, he was mostly right. 90% of the Apps out there could be web-apps and you wouldn't need to have two versions (iOS, Android) and I could access them from the desktop.

    Instead, the opposite happened: Every other stupid forum tells me to install its app. Where... I can read the forum. Uh, what? When you tell me on your forum to install your app so I can do what I am already doing before you interrupted me with that stupid pop-up then someone somewhere had his brain turned off or he would've realized how utterly stupid that is.

    It's like stopping me in front of the grocery shelf in your supermarket to hand me a flyer that tells me that if I go to your supermarket, I can buy groceries there. Uh, yes, dumbo?

    The problem is the insanity called advertisement agencies. These people are not selling your product to your customers as they are trying to make you believe. Their product is not your product and their customers are not your customers. Their product is advertisement and their customer is you. As long as you will pay for it, they will sell you any crap they can get away with. And so they will happily repackage the website, forum or whatever else you already created and sell it back to you. And for some reason, people are dumb enough to pay for their own product.

    We can only hope that sanity will win in the end and product managers the world over start to kick out these parasites. I, for one, consider a pop-up telling me to install an app that allows me to view the website that I am already viewing as a surefire sign that your company is too stupid to spend money on. Or in simple terms: Want to drive me off? Tell me to install your app.

"My sense of purpose is gone! I have no idea who I AM!" "Oh, my God... You've.. You've turned him into a DEMOCRAT!" -- Doonesbury