MobileNews

The app trap

Could smartphone apps be taking us back to the days of “best viewed with ... ”? Gary Marshall makes his prediction

Let joy be unconfined: my bank has made an app. No longer must I choose between being able to read what’s on screen and having the ability to navigate it, wondering whether my fat-fingered clicks have registered or whether I’ve accidentally given all my money to my wife. For me, online banking has become faster, more intuitive and considerably better looking.

For the rest of the bank’s customers, however, online banking remains the same miserable, ‘hey 1994 called and it wants its website back’, RSI-inducing mess it’s always been. The app is iPhone only: if you’re on Windows Phone, or Android, or Symbian, or a laptop, you’re out of luck.

My bank isn’t the only organisation that’s going through this process. The chances are that if a retailer or service has a website, it also has an accompanying app. MusicMagpie has one. Wonga.com has one. Tesco Bank even has an app designed to record details if you crash the car.

I understand it, I really do. Apps are cool. Apps are popular. Apps give you the upper hand in the golf club lounge when you’re trying to score points against your fellow CEOs. As a result, “we must have an app!” is the new “we must have a social media strategy”, which in turn was the new “we must have an AOL keyword”. Remember those?

Tail wags dog

I like apps. I’ve got screens full of the things, and I’ve sung their praises in these very pages. But what I don’t like is the way in which the rise of the app appears to be bringing back the days of “best viewed with”, when some sites expected not only specific browsers but specific plugins, screen resolutions and available colours. At least with those you could change your settings to view the site as the designer intended. Good luck getting an iPhone app to run on Windows Phone.

What worries me is that firms are getting the wrong end of the stick here; that the app tail is wagging the internet dog. My delight at the prospect of an online banking app isn’t because I want yet another icon on my phone’s home screen; it’s that the browser-based service is so awful, such an insult to the eyes, that pretty much anything short of being poked with a sharp object would deliver a more enjoyable experience. The app is better than the normal online service, in much the same way that being stabbed is marginally better than being shot.

Some services work better as apps, but banking isn’t one of them. There’s nothing my bank’s iPhone app does that couldn’t be done in a browser – and the app only offers a subset of features, so if I want to do more than check balances or transfer between personal accounts then I need to go to the normal website anyway. The money spent developing a pretty but limited iPhone app only benefits the iPhone-toting few, but money spent on the website UI would have benefited everyone.

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