Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Why install Smartphone Apps for commonly used web applications

It is common for newbie smartphone users to access Social media and other web applications with the built-in browser. My brother was one of them and the other day he asked me why most of these web applications keep on suggesting users to install the equivalent smartphone apps for faster access. He was finding the gentle prodding that Android does before installing apps a bit intimidating and thus had reservations about installing apps. I prepared a rather lengthy response with the intention of creating a blog post out of it. Here is a copy-paste of it.

"Web sites of the olden days were typically more static compared to the high amount of interactivity that current web applications offer. Think of relatively static pages like hotmail and yahoo of the older generation and compare that to something like Facebook. Web applications of those days were written for browsers alone since there was no other way to access them. In browsers in a typical PC, there is no dearth of screen "real estate" to display data and the entire keyboard and mouse were available to input data and so websites were designed with no input or output constraints in mind.

Before the advent of smartphones in a big way with iPhones and Android, there were an intermediate generation of phones which could access data through slow speed data networks set up by the mobile phone companies. The web developers at this point realised the difficulties users have in viewing their websites in the small screens of mobile phones. To address this, they started developing versions of their websites which look better in small screens. And then when you access www.yahoo.com from such a phone, the web application will redirect you to m.yahoo.com behind the scenes which is a version better viewed in a small screen. Thus the industry evolved a solution for the screen "real estate" problem to a large extent. 

The era of smartphones brought in a whole new set of input options (Like touchscreen and software keyboards). It was coincidental that web 2.0 applications which are much more interactive started emerging at the same time. Mobile versions of existing websites were no longer enough for users of web 2.0 applications who also had much more capabilities in their hands now with their smartphones. Apple and Google understood this and exposed controls to their devices through Application Program Interfaces (APIs) to the developer community and brought in the paradigm of "App Stores" for software content delivery. With this new ecosystem, original web application developers got a new option to customise and optimise the entire user experience for their web applications. In other words, they started using the specific options given by the iOS and Android platforms to make input and output easier using customised "Apps". Instead of using a browser available with the platform to open a website and access/manipulate data there in microscopic fields, you can access the same data using an App. The App for a particular website makes use of the full capabilities of the platform compared to a browser which is generic for all websites. I am surprised that Apps claim faster access with apps. Maybe it is so because it will load only those information that needs to be and fits into your smartphone screen. But I do agree that in a smartphone, the user experience with an app is superior to that of using a browser.

I would suggest you to access Facebook through a smartphone browser (In your case, Chrome) and then with the Facebook App available in Android market. You'll understand this better. 

While installing apps, the Android (and iOS) platforms asks the customer a set of security questions. These are typically access to Location, memory, camera and calls. These questions serve as a last check against malicious intent which some apps might have. But this is not something that needs to be worried about. If you install an application from the Google Playstore (or Samsung's equivalent), they already run quite a few checks to filter out malware. But it is advisable to check the ratings of the applications in the market. Genuine apps will have good ratings and can be installed almost blindly. If it is an unknown application certain amount of caution augurs well. Don't give access if you are not comfortable.

Some of the guidelines for installing apps are:
For applications like Facebook and linkedin, there could be multiple apps developed by multiple entities. Select the top-rated one from that and they would be bonafide. 
Check the privileges that the app is requesting and uncheck them if you are not comfortable. For e.g., when installing Facebook app, it might ask for your location. The app might then have a default setting which makes the location to get added to all posts. 
Don't install apps from unknown locations unless you know the source"

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