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Apple Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs speaks in front of a display showing icons of various apps during the iPhone OS4 special event at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California in this April 8, 2010 file photo. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)
Apple Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs speaks in front of a display showing icons of various apps during the iPhone OS4 special event at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California in this April 8, 2010 file photo. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

The rise and fall of the app Add to ...

You become word of the year and suddenly people are saying your days are numbered - such is the price of celebrity.

But it's almost the very success of the mobile app and the ever-expanding variety of smart phones which use them that has some predicting a fall from grace.

The problem is that the mobile apps that have become ubiquitous on devices such as the iPhone aren't compatible from one gadget to the next.

Tech watchers suggest that will likely mean the app as we know it will become less important, as more mobile content moves away from specialized, proprietary programs and back onto the web, where it can be viewed by anyone on almost any device.

Apple's popular smart phone led to a boom in mobile apps, with the iPhone's app store boasting more than 300,000 of the small software programs, which can usually be downloaded free or for a small price.

Other phone makers have done the same, with Android, Blackberry and others all creating their own app stores, and businesses such as newspapers, movie theatres and game developers jumping on the app bandwagon.

They have become so unavoidable the American Dialect Society recently voted "app" the word of the year for 2010.

The big problem is compatibility. Companies that want to create an app need to make a separate one for each device they want to target, and users with phones that aren't supported are left in the lurch, especially if they switch devices and find out they can't take their apps with them.

Peter-Paul Koch, a veteran web developer who moved into mobile development two years ago, says those problems can largely be solved by so-called "web apps."

Web apps are essentially just websites, but the latest web standards - known as HTML 5 - allow for a rich user experience that looks and feels like a traditional app.

Koch says when he first started working on mobile web projects, he was surprised at the focus on closed, proprietary apps.

"There's nothing against making a native app, especially for games, but I assumed that people wanted to write something that could run on as many phones as possible. And that turned out to not to be the case," says Mr. Koch, a mobile consultant in Amsterdam "It has changed for the good. People have really started to see that HTML 5 apps are a good alternative to native apps, because it's all fun to have an iPhone app, but then you also have to write an Android app, and even if you have an Android app, your stuff still doesn't work on Blackberry or Nokia or whatever else."

Google, for example, has primarily focused on mobile apps rather than creating standalone programs for the iPhone. It's iPhone app simply links to the web versions of popular services such as Gmail, and the company even created a web app of its Google Voice online phone service.

Mr. Koch suggests there will still be a place for non-web apps, especially for resource-intensive programs such as games, which don't work as well over the web. Traditional apps can also access the phone's hardware, store information, send pop-up alerts and work without an Internet connection - none of which are currently possible for websites.

And while it's easy for a company to charge for an app sold through the iPhone or Android stores, developers are still experimenting with how to charge for their web counterparts.

Mr. Koch says they will likely put a fee on content, rather than the apps themselves.

For David Megginson, who runs an IT consulting firm in Ottawa, the biggest advantage of HTML 5 apps is the web itself.

"We know now that links matter, that things like Facebook and YouTube function because of linking - I can send you an email and say, 'Hey I read this interesting story,' and give you the URL to anywhere on the website I'm reading," says Mr. Megginson.

"The second you go into the world of apps, you completely leave that, you go to the pre-web world."

Mr. Megginson says consumers may soon notice they're accessing more apps in their web browsers, but he thinks it will happen gradually.

"I think if it happens, it's not going to be because consumers make a choice, I think it's going to happen by accident," he says.

"If developers do more cool things with mobile web apps, consumers will use them, and as they get more used to it and the browsers get better blurring the distinction, they'll just get more and more used to doing things in the browser."

Jason Grigsby, a mobile developer in Portland, Ore., says a lot of the debate about whether apps should be downloaded onto phones or accessed over the web misses an important issue: whether some companies even need apps in the first place.

Grigsby says the real issue is ensuring content is accessible from mobile devices - whether that takes the form of a traditional app, a web app or simply ensuring that a website can actually be viewed on a mobile browser.

"For a lot of smaller businesses, the whole discussion is kind of moot: your local restaurant doesn't need to decide whether they want to build a native app or a mobile app," says Mr. Grigsby, whose company helped design President Barack Obama's iPhone app for the 2008 U.S. election campaign.

"Not every business needs an app. There are far more websites that need to be able to be accessed on mobile devices, and were probably designed in a manner that doesn't work on a mobile device."

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