Tech

We wanted integrated packages; we got disintegrated apps

Something for the Weekend I have an app whose sole purpose is to launch another app.

Obviously I am misusing it. You’re supposed to set up the first app to trigger not just one but a whole host of app services in one go. At first, I had it launch all my apps. Over time I realized that I didn’t need all those apps running at once so pruned the list down to just the essential ones.

Then I pruned that list down to just the most essential. More pruning followed as I felt it was silly to launch apps that despite being most essential were not absolutely essential every day.

So now I have honed it down so that my app launcher launches one app. It may not be much of a time-saver but the license doesn’t expire for another nine months and I want to get my money’s worth.

Besides, the one app that it does launch is already connected to my other apps and makes use of those as needed. Effectively, I have an app that launches an app… that launches apps.

If that’s not a metaphor for the modern age, I don’t know what is.

But then I don’t have much of a choice. Each little app is a jack of one trade so you’re obliged to hook them up into elaborate chains just to get a task completed.

I’m pretty sure when I started out in this field, we used to have software programs that did the whole thing. You’d have a word processor, for example, that would not just record text you typed into it but format and print it as well, not to mention magical automated features such as mailmerge all built-in. And this was at a time when the height of sophistication in everyday desktop automation was being able to customize your own autoexec.bat.

I can still remember my surprise at discovering that I could use Lotus 1-2-3 as a simple database. It wasn’t just for management accounts! You could make lists and enter text records and search them! Incredible! My best mate at the time was a Lotus Symphony developer and it bowled me over that one package could be a word processor, spreadsheet, and database at the same time.

Admittedly it did get a bit silly. I worked on a magazine for Lotus users and we’d regularly feature hot tips from readers who found clever new ways of using their favorite office software. We reached peak @function when we published a page-long macro that persuaded 1-2-3 to act like a word processor – and a really shit one at that. It basically made column A really wide and when you filled the cell it would move your cursor into the next cell below it. Re-editing and rewrapping was possible but the macro code was so convoluted and intense that the office lights would dim if you tried.

I left the magazine shortly afterwards. Rumor has it that they subsequently ran a reader’s macro designed to control the blinking of your Christmas tree lights and another that enabled 1-2-3 to be used as a pair of socks. Apparently only one of these rumors is untrue.

Yet this was the spirit of the age. There was a lot of talk about object-oriented programming and how applications in the future would be a collection of plug-ins. There was a feeling that integrated packages would be the future.

As we know, the future turned out to be one of disintegration. These days it’s all apps, apps, apps. Sure, clap along if you feel like that’s what you want to do, but I’m not sure it makes much sense.

Blame mobile computing if you like but apps on smartphones do make sense, in principle at least. You don’t want a memory hog to clog everything up on your handset at once so you have lots of little single-task programs that we used to call “applets.” One to record some notes, another to calculate some numbers; one to convert docs to a PDF, another to view and print that PDF; and so on.

The complexity of having to combine all these apps just to get a simple task done is regarded as normal. Take the example of an Internet of Things smart light bulb: you can turn on your light using your smartphone.

Me, I can turn mine on by gently pressing my finger against a plastic rocker switch on the wall. Call me old-school but I think this is simpler than having to…

1. Reach for my phone

2. Wake it up

3. Find the right app and launch it

4. Sign in with my 256-character password

5. Enter the 2FA passcode that arrives by SMS seven minutes later

6. Dismiss the cookies prompt

7. Wait for the 30-second ad for some crappy game to finish playing

8. Tap a menu

9. Scroll down my list of smart lamps

10. Scroll back up because I over-accelerated when I scrolled down

11. Select the right lightbulb set and slide that stupid slidey-style on-switch that’s all the rage with brain-dead UX designers but it keeps sliding back off again because apparently I’m supposed to tap on it instead of sliding it even though it quite obviously looks like you’re supposed to slide the thing to the right

12. Slide, slide, slide, sliiiide, come on, bastard, sliiiiiiiiiide

13. Voilà! Your lights turn on!

If you think that inserting all this stuff – not to mention the smart plugs, receiver devices, and various ludicrous interpretations of what constitutes “remote control” – into the tiny gap between your fingertip and a light switch is technology at its finest, I have a magic wand I’d like to sell you.

None of this mobile app-style complexity should be necessary at user level on a laptop or desktop computer. I wonder if we’ve been suckered into the app ecosystem by being told it’s a cruel necessity if you want to get stuff done in the cloud.

For example, my calendar app has the worst to-do reminders imaginable. How can a calendar not have a proper to-do feature integrated into it? It would be like having a to-do app that didn’t have a fully featured calendar – which of course, they don’t. No they don’t. A list of dates is not a calendar.

So you end up with dozens of apps that do just one thing but not quite enough to complete a whole task so you have to subscribe to more.

You can’t buy apps. You can only rent them.

If anything, apps seem terribly keen to point out that you have to connect them to other apps to complete their missing features. That’s a selling point? It seems to me that they are singing the praises of their own inadequacy. “Subscribe to us because we have huge gaping holes in our functionality which can only be filled by subscribing to other apps!”

Let’s give it a go, shall we? I duly allow a bunch of apps to connect with each other.

Now every time I have an appointment, half a dozen other apps explode into life, offering to do a variety of silly things. Not only is there no nuance, these apps can’t even seem to distinguish between a domestic calendar and one for work-related events. Whether it’s an interview, catch-up meeting, dental appointment or hairdresser booking, it sends them into a frenzy of unnecessary activity.

The crunch came recently when my late father’s birthday came round again. It’s still there in my birthdays calendar; why not?

My to-do app created a reminder task for it, although I’m not sure what present I should buy a dead parent. Evernote created a note for me to make minutes of the event, giving it the title Meeting: Dad’s birthday. Zoom set up a remote meeting for it – I trust Dad has updated his Zoom client in Heaven and accepted the T&Cs – and Otter tells me it is ready to transcribe the seance.

Talk about feeling like a room without a roof. But as I said, clap along if you feel like that’s what you want to do.

We’re so appy.

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He would like a complete to-do app that not only reminds him what needs to be done but actually goes ahead and does it. Now that’s automation. More SFTW here. Other stuff at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.




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