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Imagine a World Without Apps

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Allow me to ask a wild question: What if we played games, shopped, watched Netflix and read news on our smartphones — without using apps?

Our smartphones, like our computers, would instead mostly be gateways to go online through a web browser.

Why bother changing, you ask? Because the downsides of our app system — principally the control that Apple and Google, the dominant app store owners in much of the world, exert over our digital lives — are onerous enough to contemplate another path.

There remain technical obstacles to using smartphone websites for everything. We’re also used to apps. But in recent months, Microsoft’s Xbox video gaming console, the popular game Fortnite and other game companies have moved ahead with technology that makes it possible to play video games on smartphone web browsers.

This is a big deal. Games are the among the most popular smartphone apps, and they are often technically sophisticated. If video games can inch away from apps, maybe every other industry can, too.

Even small erosions in our app system raise two big questions: Have apps outlived their usefulness? And if apps weren’t dominant, would we have a richer variety of digital services from a broader array of companies?

The first thing to understand about apps is this: They were not inevitable. In the early smartphone era, there was a tug of war between technologies that were more like websites and the apps we know today. Apps won, mostly because they were technically superior.

But web browsers have become more capable, and cloud computing now enables a lot of sophisticated stuff to happen off the physical phone.

I first became interested in this topic because Aram Zucker-Scharff, who helps oversee digital advertising technology at The Washington Post, has been tweeting for years arguing that apps were a mistake and it’s time to move most of our smartphone activity to increasingly sophisticated mobile websites.

One of Zucker-Scharff’s points is about control. Apple and Google dictate much of what is allowed on the world’s phones. There are good outcomes from this, including those companies weeding out bad or dangerous apps and giving us one place to find them.

But this comes with unhappy side effects. Apple and Google charge a significant fee on many in-app purchases, and they’ve forced app makers into awkward workarounds. (Ever try to buy a Kindle e-book on an iPhone app? You can’t.) The growing complaints from app makers show that the downsides of app control may be starting to outweigh the benefits.

You know what’s free from Apple and Google’s iron grip? The web. Smartphones could lean on the web instead.

It’s easy to believe that fights over apps are merely one set of powerful companies — the Fortnite owner, Epic Games, and Spotify, for example — beefing over money with even more powerful companies, Apple and Google. It’s more than that, though.

This is about imagining an alternate reality where companies don’t need to devote money to creating apps that are tailored to iPhones and Android phones, can’t work on any other devices and obligate app makers to hand over a cut of each sale.

Maybe more smaller digital companies could thrive. Maybe our digital services would be cheaper and better. Maybe we’d have more than two dominant smartphone systems. Or maybe it would be terrible. We don’t know because we’ve mostly lived with unquestioned smartphone app dominance.

Overthrowing the app system is hard, and it may not be worth the trouble. But I’m coming around to the idea that the flaws of the app system can’t be fixed, and it’s worth exploring alternatives that minimize the role of apps in our digital lives.

Facebook is a company. It is also the world’s biggest experiment in mass mind control. (Yes, I’m being intentionally provocative. It’s not literally mind control.)

Please read this article from my colleagues about software changes that Facebook made to de-emphasize divisive posts in its news feed and give more prominence to information from authoritative news sources about the U.S. election.

Those changes prompted internal debates at Facebook about balancing the benefits of calmer online interactions with potential dings to the company’s finances and possible political backlash, Kevin Roose, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel reported.

It’s a fascinating peek behind the curtain at how Facebook governs an online gathering place of billions. And their article shows that Facebook is not a static product. It evolves constantly in response to the company’s goals and outside pressure.

Those who believe Facebook is exerting too much control over what information people see in its news feed will chafe at the kind of tinkering my colleagues wrote about.

But let me say for the zillionth time that everything we see or don’t see on Facebook is a result of deliberate choices by the company. Facebook makes tweaks all the time to change what information we see and reshape our interactions. And it has always been this way. Many popular internet services are the same.

Now matter how you feel about Facebook, it is wild that a corporation controlled principally by one person has this much influence on the preferences and behaviors of billions of people — and is essentially making big decisions mostly on its own and in secret.

As even Facebook executives have asked at times, should we really be leaving this much power in one company’s hands?

  • A computer could write this better than me: My colleague Cade Metz has the best explanation I’ve read about a technology known as GPT-3 that analyzes reams of published words to spit out computer-generated language that sounds like humans. And he tried it on some Modern Love columns. (I’ll have more from Cade in Wednesday’s newsletter.)

  • Why your son might be struggling with virtual classes: Remote school has been tough for many kids and families. But The Wall Street Journal writes about some research that finds the distractions of virtual instruction and a lack of motivation might be causing boys to fall further behind girls in academic achievement.

  • When virtual violence is an escape from the real thing: Filled with death and destruction, the group mobile game PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds is becoming widely played across Afghanistan, almost as an escape from the reality of a country mired in war, my colleagues Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Fatima Faizi write.

Look, a newborn donkey taking his first, ungainly steps. (This video is from 2017, but it’s new to me!)

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