Desktop apps have been around for a while — since the beginning of the personal computing revolution. They’ve weathered the transition from floppy disks to DVD’s. Survived the internet era and the mobile revolution. The question is — why?
I’m here to argue that the humble and unloved desktop app is here to stay. In this article I’m going to make a case for desktop apps by focusing on two technologies in particular that have been lauded as desktop app killers - Mobile /apps and web apps.
Would be assassin #1 — The mobile app revolution
Recently, Apple made a really interesting announcement. No, not the iPad pro (but we’ll come to that), or the MacBook Air. I’m talking about the 1st of November, during Apple’s fourth quarter earnings call. Apple announced that it will no longer be reporting unit sales of the iPhone. The reason? Certainly not what Apple had to say:
“A unit of sale is less relevant today than it was in our past,” Maestri said, adding that the number of units sold does not necessarily represent the relative health of a product’s underlying business.
The real reason is that iPhone sales have fallen flat. The smartphone market is saturated, and new hardware simply isn’t innovative enough to convince people they need to buy a new phone. Apple shares fell by 7% on the news. Not even the mighty iPhone X has made a difference. For me, this marks the end of the mobile revolution. And that’s not a bad thing.
“Whatever you’re doing, do mobile first” Google’s Eric Schmidt declared from the stage at mobile world congress in 2010. “The smartest developers start with the presumption of location, locality, connection and interactivity.” And who could have disagreed? Mobile was eating the world. And developers were switching to mobile in droves. The writing was firmly etched on the wall. The PC era was over — mobile would be the new computing paradigm.
And so it came to pass. It affected me personally. In 2013, my partner and I were looking for funding for a desktop app. And it was hard! Most seed stage investors simply didn’t want to know about desktop software. This made no sense to me. People were still using PC’s, right?
Mobile has always been one breakthrough away, but has never quite hit the mark. For example, despite Apples’ objections, it became clear that the screen on your phone simply wasn’t large enough to do anything truly useful or productive. Their initial response was the iPad. If you want to create rather than consume, you should buy an iPad! Slate declared the following
“Apple killed the netbook, more or less single-handedly, and we should all be grateful for it”.
The author then reluctantly added “True, the iPad, unlike the netbook, doesn’t come with a keyboard or a pointing device. But you can buy a keyboard for it.” Turns out keyboards are important. A tablet and a keyboard is just a bad laptop.
It’s now 2018 and look no further than the most recent version of the iPad Pro to see that Apple are still trying to convince us mobile is the future. It’s got a chip, Apple says, that is 92% faster than all laptops released in 2018, including those containing intel’s flagship i7 processor. To reinforce this point, they brought Adobe on stage to demo Photoshop. Photoshop! on an iPad! Looks like my laptop is headed to the recycle bin. But even now, Photoshop on the iPad is a heavily compromised experience. I won’t go into examples — you should head over to this excellent article written by the Verge’s Nilay Pattel for his thoughts on Photoshop for iPad.
Despite Apple’s (and others) best efforts, I still need my PC. New hardware form factors alone are not going to kill the desktop app.
Would be assassin #2 — Web apps
We have finally reached the point where web technologies can compete with native technologies. Feel free to debate the pros and cons of developing for the web vs. the desktop in the comments. But technology has very little to do with it. In my opinion, both desktop and web can provide a pretty decent user experience. Just look at the similarities between design tool rivals Sketch(desktop) and Figma (web). But native desktop apps have one considerable advantage. They are treated by the OS as a first class citizen.
Operating systems are designed to be containers for programs. So they do a really good job of allowing us to find, launch, use and switch desktop apps.
Windows, Mac and Linux all have app stores that allow you to easily discover, find and install the software. Yes, I could use Google. But that’s one extra step, and friction really matters. Chances are, if you are reading this, you are a techie. And we do love a simple UI. A flick, a swipe or a scroll in the right place can make all the difference in the world. Just ask Tinder.
One of my favourite bloggers, Ben Thompson of Stratechery puts it like this:
Finding and installing apps is trivial, easily accomplished on the bus, on the couch, or on the can. And it’s great for developers, as a set; the ease with which apps are installed via app stores likely means exponentially more apps have been installed in the last five years than in the thirty-five years that preceded the App Store.
This is important but subtle. The ability to pin a program to your desktop or launch and app from the dock/task bar is everything. It puts an important task a mere one click away. No user name or password screen. I click, and I’m there. Again, it’s all about Friction, or the lack thereof.
When using my browser, I normally have about 15 tabs open at any given time. And I find flicking between them is a royal PITA. Especially if it’s something intensive that requires interaction with other pages or applications. We use Zendesk at Hiri, which, for the most part, is excellent. But replying to users isn’t always straight forward. I may have to involve someone else on the team or copy and paste from another ticket. That means flicking between (even more) tabs and to make things worse, Zendesk has its own tabbed UI. Tabs within tabs.
Same goes for this blog post. Although Medium provide a perfectly adequate UI for writing, I wrote this in notepad and copy/pasted. That way, regardless of what tab I was using for research, I could easily flick back to my article via the glorious alt-tab. It removes a tiny piece of bothersome friction.
I could cover some well worn territory here and say Apps on Operating Systems tend to be consistent with the UI of the OS. Or ‘what happens if you need to use it offline’. I could also argue that native apps are faster (Sketch above uses Apple’s Metal framework to good effect). But that’s not it. I like using desktop apps because they feel more substantial.
In his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Dr. Daniel Kahneman breaks the brain down into two decision making systems. System 1 is how we ‘feel’ about something, is unconscious, intuitive, automatic and fast. System 2 is conscious, rational, deliberate and slow. Guess which system is responsible for the vast majority of our decisions?
Rationally, I know that there is not much difference between a web based app or a desktop app. But I feel that a desktop app is a more substantial thing. I feellike it should work better because of its relationship with the OS. And how I feel is how it is — that is my reality. And I doubt I’m alone.
I’m not wedded to desktop apps. Some things are just better online. I don’t feel there’s a need for a dedicated app to book a flight or read the news. But for some reason, I don’t like doing substantial things online. For example, design.
I’m really impressed with Figma, and maybe I just need to get over it, but I prefer that Sketch is doing its own thing, in a separate compartment that is not my browser. I like that it asks me if I would like to update rather than force it down my neck like most online SaaS stuff. I like that when I open a file I’m not uploading it to someone else’s server. I like that I feel that I’ve paid for, rather than rented the tool I’m using.
The reality is, as long as Operating Systems — and let’s be honest here, we’re talking about Windows and Mac OS- exist they are always going to favour the tools that utilise their respective desktop environments. Apple have doubled down on their app store with a recent redesign and the vertical integration of hardware and software using bespoke languages and deeper hooks into the OS. Microsoft have followed suit with their own app store and Surface hardware.
Kevin Kelly discusses the evolution of technology in his book — “What technology wants”. He makes the case that if the conditions are right, some technologies are inevitable:
“Science-fiction guru Isaac Asimov made the astute observation that in the age of horses many ordinary people eagerly and easily imagined a horseless carriage.”
The basic form factor of a PC is the product of natural and obvious evolution. It’s difficult to imagine a PC or laptop being useful without a screen a keyboard and a mouse. And the operating system/desktop app combination is the inevitable consequence of this technology. It has endured because we haven’t found the next step. iPads with keyboards are a just a bad laptop. Web apps are a bad facsimile of desktop apps. They are not the strongest branch in the evolutionary tree that is our interaction with computers.