We’re all familiar with the idea of an app these days, and Apple have revolutionised the mobile industry with their introduction of the App Store and the iPhone. These small, task focused, highly interactive software creations have filled millions of niches in peoples lives, effectively bridging the gap between what a very specific user actually wants, and the wider complexity of the web. With the introduction of the iPad, which also supports apps in the same way as the iPhone, Apple are now trying to expand the app concept to a larger form factor.
That’s tricky though. An app made for a small interface like an iPhone does not easily scale to something as large as an iPad, as experts like Jacob Nielsen and his team have discovered in their review of iPad App Usability. Nevertheless these are early days, and this does raise the interesting question – are web apps the future for our laptops and desktops as well?
Further support for this has come from Google’s recent I/O conference in the US, which is Google’s chance to meet with developers and showcase things that they are working on and plan to do in the future. One of the things that they annouced their was the Chrome Web Store, effectively an app store for web applications that run in your web browser – though in Google’s case these apps are basically just richly functioning mini websites, and as such they will work on any web browser on any platform, as opposed to Apple’s closed app infrastructure, which will only run on Apple devices. It seems Google see the future of the web as specific apps that you ‘install’ within your web browser, though in reality what you are doing is simply creating links to the apps, since they live within the wider web.
What does this mean for the University? Perhaps we need to start thinking of apps as web based in the same way that Apple and Google are headed. At the moment our portal fullfills some of this function, by offering things like calendaring and email access directly through the web, but other functionality is much more “web 1.0”, with the ability to download items like documents and presentations from our personal file storage, but not work on them directly in the web. In addition the portal is framed very much as a one stop shop, with the same tab choices to all, and little abilty to customise these tabs to suit the individual. If we were to think of these tabs as apps, how would that shift the way we offered them? Should we adopt the Google approach, delivering each service as specific web apps, and the portal becomes the place to choose (and host) your web apps, as opposed to a predefined set of services?