Going Against the Tide of the Apps


This article by a veteran of the computing world is an interesting account of his experiences with computers, right from punch cards to mobiles and tablets. Since he has reservations about the apps that are constantly being thrown at him from various websites, he puts forward a case for using a browser through a proxy server, rather than installing an app.

As yet another website nags me to install its app on my Android tablet, I recall the various user interfaces I have gone through.
My interaction with computers began with punched cards. Interactive experience started with a teletype, which was soon improved on by a much faster one, at 300 baud and a much quieter electronic teletype. We graduated to dumb terminals. Then, the most dramatic change came with smart terminals. We were now operating with a whole screen instead of a character at a time. Form based interactive computing with the mainframe and minicomputer applications became possible.
Once the PC arrived, the first connection to the host computers was using a terminal emulator application. With graphical displays on PCs and better networking, we were soon deploying client-server applications. The interaction of the user with the computer became much easier. Consistency of common usage patterns across applications made it much easier to use new applications without the need to learn the new applications’ interfaces and commands. The biggest challenge with this model, though, was the distribution of new versions with bug fixes and new features.

Web interfaces were a remarkable relief. It was possible to connect to any site without having to load a specific application. For a number of years, the users of open source software had to suffer. Some websites, especially those related to finance which we could not avoid, seemed programmed only for the quirks of Internet Explorer. However, with the popularity of Firefox and Google Chrome, it is now rare to come across a site that gives users a headache.
Smartphones introduced the challenge of smaller displays to websites. And for some of you, this display on the smartphone, may well be the first interface you’ve ever experienced.
Websites detect the browser being used and send a different page display, based on the browser. The websites can just as easily detect the device and send different versions of the Web page. However, that has not been a popular solution. The convention of m.site-url instead of www.site-url for sites optimised for mobile screens is common but not universal.

The apps
A more common solution has been that each site tries to offer an optimum solution by creating apps targeted at different mobile computing environments, identical to the client-server era. Some like Firefox OS, Ubuntu Touch or Blackberry will remain neglected. Your experience may differ based on the platform you are using and the version of the application you have installed.

This brings me back to the irritation with the websites nagging me to install apps. If you click on a link, will it open in an app or in a browser? Even if this step is transparent, it makes no sense to have thousands of apps installed for the countless sites you may browse.

In most cases, you may find it pretty hard to notice the advantage a custom application would offer, compared to a reasonably well defined page for the smaller displays. In fact, how would an app deal with an Android tablet with a screen that is over 50.8cm (20 inches) like the Nabitablet?

Using a proxy server
The advantage of a Web browser over an app becomes very obvious if you wish to use a proxy server. If you are using multiple devices, including a laptop, a desktop, a tablet or a smartphone, and have a limitation on your data plan, it would make sense to reuse the pages and objects which have already been downloaded on one device when you access these from another. Aside from saving data, it will lead to a better performance.

You need to ‘long press’ on a Wi-Fi connection on a smartphone and under Advanced options, configure the proxy. It is very simple, except that a message warns you that the proxy will be used by the browser but may not be used by the apps.
While I was monitoring the Squid logs, everything seemed fine. Using various Google apps went via the proxy. And then I noticed that one of the biggest users of data was missing – Facebook!

For the first time on the tablet, I used the browser to go to the Facebook site, which as expected, advised me to have a better experience by installing the app. To my surprise, I found the experience of Facebook’s mobile website to be far easier and snappier for my usage, than the app. Besides, as expected, these calls to the Facebook site were now via the proxy.

The major shock for me was that I had become so attuned to the ‘app’ environment that it had never even occurred to me to try the browser instead!

Also, the app stores build up proprietary environments, creating very high barriers for new approaches to the mobile platform. The client-server era made Windows the dominant desktop environment and it continues to dominate even today. Now, environments like Firefox OS have trouble even gaining a foothold in this domain, leave alone getting a chance to change the world!

So, I would encourage you all to think before you install the next app. Is it in your best interests or is it in the interest of the site owner? What benefit does it bring you and at what cost? I am not talking about the cost of the app – but the hidden cost of your data being made available to the site owners!

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The author works as a consultant. Prior to consulting, Anil was a professor at Padre Conceicao College of Engineering (PCCE) in Goa, managed IT and imaging solutions for Phil Corporation Limited (Goa), supported domestic customers for Tata Burroughs/TIL, and was a researcher with IIT-K and the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism (Mumbai).


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