While browsing a website on a mobile device has come a long, long way, a new trend in business priorities is leading us all down the wrong path. Try viewing a website for a large commercial service or digital brand, and you’re likely to hit an “appwall,” a pop-up that promotes the availability of a native app experience. Some companies—Reddit, for example—require the use of a native app just to view content on their popular channels.
The problem seems to be getting worse, and I’m not the only person to see this. Ethan Marcotte writes:
Sometimes, the website wants me to install the app — no, it needs me to install the app. It’s like a paywall, but for apps. An appwall. Basically, I’m locked out of the website unless I stop what I’m doing, download their native application, and then use it to open the same content I was just trying to read. Why would a company promote a native app over their perfectly usable website?
We’d have to ask them, I suppose but it’s hard not to see this as a matter of priorities: that these companies consider native applications worthy of their limited time, resources, and money. They’re a worthy investment, to hear these banners tell it. And I can understand that. After all, the overwhelming majority of digital advertising revenue goes to just two companies . ( Or three .) Given that, I could see why a digital organization might search for revenue streams that rely less on display advertising.
Maybe those revenue streams rely on collecting other kinds of data.
But whatever the motives, that doesn’t mean these app prompts are a good experience. When responsive design first became a thing , mobile websites were peppered with links to “the full website”…which invariably contained the content or features you actually wanted to access on your mobile device. In practice, this encouraged product teams to adopt device-specific design methods: features weren’t deployed to people, but to specific types of devices.
By and large, these app prompts feel like fancier versions of that old pattern. And when new product features are built on the native experience, I think it’s illuminating when they don’t make it back to the web.
It’s also disheartening.
Too many companies are treating the web as a second-class experience to their closed systems. We fought the good fight to protect the web against this when it was just a handful of technology companies—embracing proprietary code to create proprietary experiences. Now? Our phones and tablets are littered with them. And the payoff is not there. The Reddit experience on iOS is not superior to that of the web. Considering what can be done in a native OS environment, that application should have AR sharks with lasers dancing on the furniture and acting out all of the posts in a variety of languages. Alas, most of these apps are simply a closed system of content offering nothing more than another way for a company to track your data.
Is this what we get for turning our nose to third-party cookies? Do we deserve this because the population at large does not like the idea of their every move on the web being recorded, analyzed, and used to target the sale of our material desires? Did some of us really endure WebTV just so that we ended up here? Why does Wired magazine have to be subjected to a slow and painful death in the hands of Condé Nast?
I’d suggest that appwalls are perhaps worth the effort to provoke the community to action, but sadly ye old platform Independents Day is long gone. The site is now an amalgamation of old content infused with a bizarre link list of hotels in Eastern Europe. I would stop to ask why, but I’m afraid we’re too far down the hole on this one. Maybe I’ll bring it up again in January after every nerd on the planet has watched Matrix 4 ten times, and we’re all ready to take the fight to the machines.➵