There's a Widget for That

Perhaps part of the reason the iPad doesn't make sense for me is that I've never really used an iPhone, and at the core iPad is basically iPhone++. I opted to get a Blackberry because I wanted a device that did email right and messaging, I had/have an iPod Touch that I don't really use and the little isolated applications that don't interact well with my existing work flow and lock data in didn't really appeal to me.

People are always talking about "the apps," as if there's something revolutionary happening here, and I've always been a bit non plussed. At least for my personal use, more "applications," or places where "things can be done," doesn't always equate into more productivity.

Running in parallel to this, of course is the whole Web 2.0/web-based application development thing. (Is Web2.0 coasting to a halt yet? In any case, it's probably still a current phenomena worth noting.) Although iPhone applications and Web applications are constructed in very ways that are quite technically distinct, there's an underlying commonality between the way that both function. These applications are very much not general purpose. The best iPhone (or web) applications take a specific kind of data or information (or a collection of such), and provide a way for you to interact with that information in a way that's (hopefully) intuitive.

In contrast the old familiar applications typically are designed to be either: platforms that enable you to accomplish a whole range of tasks within a certain sphere ("Office tools," email applications, emacs), or some sort of filter or pipe that allows you to access data in one format in an interface that's easy to use (RSS readers, Content management systems, pdf readers, web brwosers, etc.) There are certainly web applications that are basically pipes, and I'm sure Google would love it if we all used their application stack.

So, then, what describes this new "widget," class of applications for mobile devices and the web? On the one hand it's a case of developers "making do with what there is:" the iPhone imposes a number of serious constraints: small screen, limited on board computing resources, and a potentially inconsistent data connection. Small structured apps that are all about allowing you to interact with a small set of data work best in this environment. Additional I suspect that technology has advanced to a point where making these kinds of applications is finally possible and worth the it takes to build them: MVC frameworks have finally matured perhaps.

The enduring questions in my mind:

  • Is the data that we're throwing into databases by way of iPhone apps and web applications going to continue to be useful in the future? This gets at the "open data" question as much if not more than the "open source" aspect of applications. What's the realistic utility of our data in the long form?
  • Does this shift mark a move away from a certain kind of "paper-based logic," to a more digital way of organizing or data and digital experiences?
  • Is this just the process of bringing the kinds of "business applications," that enterprises have developed and used for decades into the consumer sphere?
  • How do the concepts of software freedom and data ownership transfer to this mode of using technology. While it's easy to say "data ought to be free," and "source code still matter" (both of which are true,) I think practically it's a bit more difficult.
  • What do these applications look like on the Desktop? Is the future JavaFX, Flex, Silverlight, and Apple Desktop Widgets? Is the desktop going to be stuck in the browser? Are there other options?

And while I think we're definitely using and creating this kind of software with abandon, I don't know if we've reached good answers to these (and other related) questions. I look forward to exploring these ideas, and hearing your thoughts!

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