By excising from the Web the most complex and security-conscious commercial applications—from retrofits of Facebook and eBay to new frontiers in mobile health and mobile banking—the Apps Culture is transfering its commercial cravings to more trustworthy, easier-to-use apps, reserving the openness of the Web for its original purpose: the casual consumption of information, free from the security and privacy protocols needed to overcome a browser interface known to be chock-full of vulnerabilities.
Of course, apps are only as good as their authors, but when done well they bypass all the messy sifting required to winnow the worthy information from the billions of Web pages cluttered with banners, flashing animations and unwanted pop-up windows. Apps are also programmed separately for each mobile platform, much as game code is tailored for specific gaming consoles, and as a result apps fully utilize the special media-handling capabilities of each handset.
“Apps provide content providers with a simpler experience that takes better advantage of the phone’s hardware features, and placement of apps on the phone’s home screen—vs. asking the user to add a bookmark with a Web browser—makes them more likely to drive repeated usage,” said Marc Siry, senior vice president of digital products and services at NBC Universal (New York). “Most of our apps are driven by the same services and content feeds as our Web sites, so you could think of them as device-specific browsers constrained to a specific content set.
“The trade-off is simplicity vs. flexibility—which is a pretty common theme across the interactive space.”
There are two things apps do well that the Web does not: process information and secure transactions.
Java was an attempt to provide the Web with applications that do not require a browser, but today most Web pages process information using HTML up front, with server-side execution of processing tasks. And despite a 20-year-old effort to purge the Web of its security vulnerabilities, weak spots persist.
“With Web pages, you are subject to spoofing attacks plus all the vulnerabilities of the browser you are using,” said James Blaisdell, CTO at cybersecurity specialist Mocana Corp. (San Francisco). “You also have a variety of what I call Wiki-Leaks problems; for instance, data can be copied and pasted between windows, and you can forward confidential e-mails from corporate logins to public accounts.”
Apps have their own vulnerabilities, but ones for which there are known solutions. For instance, unlike Web pages, which cannot store data in local memory (other than cookies), apps can directly store information on a handset, necessitating security measures to keep the information private. Also, communications back to the server need to be encrypted, lest they be overheard.
|Nielsen says that among those who actively use their apps, 91 percent have used them within the past 30 days; just 9 percent of apps users say it has been more than 30 days since they last used an app.
The apps themselves (unlike Web pages) have to be screened for Trojan horses; malware sitting inside an app could just be waiting to be activated, perhaps by downloading a different app. In fact, the FBI recently warned consumers to beware of malware in free apps, and the agency bars its own employees from downloading commercial apps.
Developers, for their part, can license security protocols from companies like Mocana or roll their own from published algorithms.
Apple’s iTunes—the world’s first app, debuting in 2000—has led the way in demonstrating that apps can be locked down. Apple claims a flawless security record, despite having more than 150 million credit cards on file, processing 230,000 new iTunes activations per day and serving a total of 120 million devices in the field. “One of Apple’s motivations with making iTunes an app was to have a consistent user experience, which would not be possible with all the different browsers on the Web, but the second reason was the much cleaner security you can provide with a proprietary app,” said Mocana’s Blaisdell.
Apple has recently begun allowing commercial enterprises to open their own company app stores—not for consumers, but for internal apps that access the corporations’ own databases. For example, a company app store might stock its shelves with Microstrategy Mobile dashboards for displaying all the latest sales, inventory and other business metrics that traditionally have been the stuff of PowerPoint presentations.