Old-School Technophile Lost In A Sea of Apps

While the smartphone has been in existence for a decade, and PDA predecessors date back to the 1990s, they have only reached mainstream attention in the last few years, with the release of the iPhone and Google’s Android operating system. Since then, the smartphone has become one of the most successful and fastest-growing computing platforms around. Perhaps key to its success is the different approach to software development and distribution compared to the personal computer.

I’m a big fan of the smartphone concept. The idea of a pocketable computer has appealed to me since I first heard of the brick-like Nokia Communicators in the early 2000s, and now that they’ve become available to the general public, rather than just people in business, a surprising amount of potential is now available at our fingertips (or, more accurately, thumbtips). However, I’m not entirely convinced that we’re going quite the right way with the concept of mobile applications – there are certain parts of the implementation which I’m not exactly enamoured with.

The first problem I have is the increasingly insular, hermetic nature of mobile operating systems, facilitated in some extent by Apple’s introduction of the App Store with iPhone OS 2.0. There are several advantages to the concept of the application market, including the fact that you’re pretty much assured that applications will just work. That doesn’t mean, however, that smartphone application distribution should be entirely dependent on the application market.

Apple is the chief offender here, with an operating system which needs to be hacked to allow for any installation of applications outside the App Store. This means that the distribution channels of software for the iPhone are in principle controlled entirely by Apple. While this doesn’t affect many people, as an advocate of open-source software, I’d prefer it if there was some distribution channel that didn’t require the hacking of your phone in order to install experimental software. Some of the most interesting applications available on personal computers have arisen as a result of large teams of programmers developing applications through open-source means, including VLC Media Player, OpenOffice.org and Mozilla Firefox.

Android is considerably better, allowing people to install applications from third-party sources. It also has the highest percentage of free applications on its application market; 57% as opposed to the 28% on Apple’s App Store. We need more of this approach, rather than the hermeticism of Apple and more recent attempts by Nokia (although the open-source licence that Symbian now follows and Nokia’s announcement that future Nseries phones will run MeeGo, a Debian-based variant of Linux, will probably help matters).

Another problem I have with the application market idea is that there’s such a sheer amount of junk to sort through to find the gems. I attribute some of this junk to companies who make applications when they’re absolutely not required. There is no need for an application by Time Magazine, or Empire, or any of the other media outlets which have applications out there. All of their content can be recreated using a properly-formatted mobile website, and shouldn’t need a separate piece of software to access.

A massive proportion of the junk applications come courtesy of games and other time-wasting applications along the same lines. I’m not going to protest against people having fun, but few of these games really bring anything new or original to the fore. I’m not about to let iPhone users forget about the 400-plus fart applications on their platform either. It would be favourable to get a reasonable balance of utility applications, such as office suites, along with the games. As it is, though, the balance is badly skewed.