16 June 2011

How Apple views the web

Joshua Topolsky wrote earlier this week about how Apple’s approach to Internet-based software is different to the other players in the industry:

… the web provides something native applications cannot. There is no native application for the Mac or iOS that replicates the shared document editing of Google Docs; there’s no mail application that exists for the Mac which will allow me to access my important information from anywhere in the world with or without a device in hand; there is no photo sharing service for iOS or the Mac which is as flexible or accessible as Flickr. When I need to access music with my Rdio account, I can do it from a plain old web browser, or an Android, iOS, or even BlackBerry application — and the ability to shift between those portals is incredibly powerful.

When it comes to Apple, it feels to me like the company views the web as a technology which undermines rather than enriches its products. It wants you to talk to the cloud, but only through its portals and its gateways, in closed loops and private networks.

On Apple’s motivations

I’m not convinced that Apple is ignoring the web because of some disdain or concern about its openness. Rather, I think they’re just aiming to build the best experience into the products and software they develop. Looking at my own personal usage of tools like email, documents, music, etc., there’s always a preferred client that I use on each platform. Whether the best client for me is a web-based client or a native client depends on the task and the software available in each area to perform it.

For email on my laptop and desktop, I currently use Gmail via a web browser. But it hasn’t always been that way. Before I became addicted to the conversation view and fast search available in Gmail, I used Apple’s Mail.app on my desktop. There are still many benefits of Mail.app over a web-based email client: easier to send attachments, more responsive, better offline access to mail, single inbox across multiple accounts, and so on. Now that the OS X Lion brings conversation views and improved search to Mail, I might consider switching back. Having my email hidden away as a single tab in my browser is not ideal in many ways.

For email on my phone, I currently use iPhone Mail. Gmail’s web-based application in Mobile Safari is currently nowhere near as usable as the native application for my needs. It can’t email photos taken on the iPhone, it doesn’t notify me of new messages, and so on. But again, that could change. With improved JavaScript APIs provided by the browser and platform, a mail client delivered through a mobile web browser could work better for some people in some situations.

There’s a similar trade-off at play for every application that has both a web-based and a native implementation available. This applies to writing and editing documents, listening to music, editing photos, and the multitude of other tasks which people perform on a computing device.

Going back to what Apple’s motivations are with iCloud, I think it’s Apple’s strategy to develop the single best possible product for each piece of functionality on each device. They believe that building native software for each device, and using the internet to synchronise data between the devices, provides a much better experience that delivering similar software in a web browser for each device. With Mail as an obvious example, Apple is aiming to build native software that will be clearly better in every way than any web-based software for the same purpose.

On competition with Google

Topolsky also brings up the point of how Apple’s lack of interest in the web leaves Google with no real competition:

I guess ultimately, my hope was that Apple would take what it’s created in its MobileMe offerings — which are actually quite good right now — and improve upon what it’s built. Why not add cloud-based Pages and Numbers. Give us group editing, bring all those new Mail features online. Make your web tools even better — make them good enough to compete with Google, because right now the only threat to the big G’s online empire is Microsoft, and I have trouble believing Apple wants to cede the web to either of those competitors.

Considering again that Apple’s motivation is simply to build the best possible experience for each piece of functionality on each device, what does that mean for web-based development of software like Pages and Numbers? I don’t see how there’s much value for them in developing such software on the web.

The way Apple looks at this problem is: if you have a good native word processor on your system, like Word or Pages, what benefits do you get from using the web-based alternative? Then they ask: how can we make those features available in our software, so the web is no longer seen as a better option?

For spreadsheets and documents, I think the distinguishing features of Google’s web-based applications are relatively few.

The first distinguishing feature provided by Google’s tools is collaborative editing, which many see as a killer feature. This is certainly possible in a native application, especially when the vendor has an online system like iCloud that can be used for communication. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pages or Numbers add some support for collaborative editing in future versions.

Secondly, the online apps also provide easy sharing because anyone can open the document in their web browser. This is more of a challenge to Apple, but I think they’ll end up providing some way of exporting your documents for read-only sharing via the web. This isn’t providing a full editing experience to everyone via the web, but remember that Apple believes that the best editing experience isn’t actually possible on the web so they don’t want to do it.

The final distinguishing feature is cost. Google’s applications are free. In this area, Apple has lowered their prices on their productivity software with the move to the Mac App Store, but it will be interesting to see whether they’ll continue to charge for it. If they view the competition from Google here as a serious concern, they might start giving away the iWork software like they do with iLife.

If Apple is concerned about their competitiveness in the office productivity software industry, I think we’ll see them tick off these features one by one over the next year or two. They’ll try to work out the best way to deliver a compelling native experience for these tasks on each platform as well as the benefits of collaboration, sharing and cost that are shown by their competitors on the web.

Further reading

There are many other people discussing the same issues around the web. Here are a few I’d recommend reading: