this space intentionally left blank

November 2, 2009

Filed under: tech»innovation

Winter of our Discontent

I'm not a fan of centralized software distribution in general, but I have to admit that I've grown to enjoy checking on the most recent additions to the Android Market. I'm probably not going to install anything I find there, but it's neat to see what people are working on. Too many days, however, browsing through the "just in" section requires scrolling past screen upon screen of cookie-cutter entries churned out by application mills somewhere: a thousand local TV station website wrappers, ringtones and contact images, individual calculators for obscure engineering functions, keyboard skins, and vast other numbers of useless pseudo-programs.

Indeed, most of these aren't even really "applications" as you'd normally think of them. They're content, or content wrappers. But thanks to the new "mobile app" model, the confusion between program and data is growing. It's hard to imagine that this is a good thing.

But first, some context: sometime between the first and second World Wars, a mathematician named Alan Turing came up with a fairly interesting idea: if you had a machine that read in a string of inputs from a tape, and acted on them in series, you could perform complex mathematical operations mechanically. More importantly, you could build a machine that (if it were first given a set of action codes) would emulate other computing machines. He called this the Universal Turing Machine, and it was kind of a big deal. In gratitude, the British government had him chemically castrated to "treat" his homosexuality, and eventually drove him to suicide. It's not one of the proudest moments in history for Britain, computer science, or humanity in general.

To this day, when discussing programming languages, we say that they are "Turing-complete"--that they're capable of simulating a Universal Turing Machine, and in turn, any other Turing-complete language. Which is pretty cool: if you've ever used an emulator, you've seen a demonstration of a UTM at work. Effectively, it turns a computer from something like a calculator, where its functions are essentially mechanical operations, into something more like a box of Legos: an infinitely-adaptable, reconfigurable toolkit for doing mental work.

Which brings us back to the mobile app store model. In this case, the platform is still a UTM--you can still write emulators and multi-purpose programs for Android--but it's being presented to the user as single-purpose. Applications work in their own little silos, and content is distributed as if it were code, even if there's no technical reason why it has to work this way.

Take, for example, Snaptic's AK Notepad, one of the most popular notepad applications on Android. Desktop users could be forgiven for thinking that a "notepad" is an editor for text files, but AK Notepad is not (it does support a clumsy import-export process, but I can't imagine using it regularly). Instead, it keeps its notes in a proprietary database that no other application can access. Want to switch to another, better tool for jotting down your grocery list (or another, more involved project)? Good luck with that.

And then there are, of course, the multitude of web-site wrappers, like those local news "applications" that have flooded the market. They're nothing but a WebView with a preset URL. They're bookmarks. And in doing so, they've taken a real UTM-type application (the browser) and turned it into a single-purpose tool. It's the equivalent of asking you to download a complete version of Firefox just for a single website. The same logic is at work for the e-book applications, which pack their own reader software for each title--here, at least, the existence of prior standards and alternate distribution portals means that standalone reader software has a chance.

I bring this up not just because it's kind of a shame from a net-neutrality, open-platform, generative-computing standpoint, but also because I feel like it robs people of one of the joys of computing: the feeling that the software is a toolkit, to be applied to any given wad of data depending on the task at hand. One program may be better at text display, another better at formatting, and yet another may provide a no-distraction writing environment. With code and content separate, you can use whichever is best for the current task, and you're not locked into a single tool. The new mobile paradigm fuses the two into a single conceptual blob, and any task becomes limited by a single piece of software. It seems like a tremendous step back for computing.

Or maybe I'm just cranky from the flu, and annoyed to find myself staring at a spammy directory of Fox affiliate stations across the entire midwest where I expected some kind of software. It's hard to say.

Future - Present - Past