Web app sprawl

This post is mainly going to be a half vent, half collection of disjointed ideas. I hate how modern computing has become.

Suburban sprawl from above. Photo by Raphaël Biscaldi on UnsplashPhoto by Raphaël Biscaldi on Unsplash

I’ve noticed that two things have become quite more prevalent since 2020:

  • Many productivity apps, apps that would’ve typically been native to your computer even as recently as five years ago, are now web apps. They run in a browser of some kind, as much as some try to hide it.
  • These products are real. Billboard ads are displayed for them beside freeway overpasses. It’s almost impossible to escape them in a modern-day business computing environment.
  • Almost each and every one of these apps want to drop their own instance of Chromium onto your computer, whether it be Electron, CEF, or some other incarnation. “Download our app.” “X is better in the app.” (Spoiler alert: it’s exactly the same in the app, instead you now have 400MB of RAM chewed up by yet another Chromium instance.)

I played this game for a while. I downloaded the apps and placed them in my Dock. I tried to collect them into groups that made the most logical sense depending on what I was doing in my work day and what hat I was wearing. This works if you only have to use one, maybe two of these. If you’re unfortunate enough to be required to use four or five however, you essentially end up with five different hyper-specialised web browsers sitting in your Dock or taskbar. I’m calling this ‘web app sprawl’.

Apps want to be prevalent on your desktop all of the time. They want to hold permanent real-estate on your computer, pinned to your Dock or taskbar, and perhaps maybe even set to run on start-up (!). I’m not sure any of us ever asked for this however. I’d imagine from a branding perspective, it’s quite powerful to have your company’s brand-mark constantly on display to your customers, even when they’re not actively interacting with your product. Lifting the web-app out of the browser and onto the desktop creates a context change, albeit subtle, that tells your users that ‘this is serious’. Oh, we’re not a website anymore, we’re an app! We’re just like Office, or your email! The cynic in me thinks that these pushes mainly come from marketing, it’s almost a kind of continuous advertising to the user, and whoever else happens to look at their computer.

As such, the intent to craft a good user experience usually ends there. It’s often the case that no further integrations or optimisations are made to take advantage of being a first-class citizen of your desktop. A conferencing/chat app may add hotkeys for push-to-talk, but that’s about it. Productivity apps won’t care to use your local filesystem or make any file associations, most likely because these vendors prefer to lock all your work into their clouds. They won’t care to try and use an existing installation of Chromium or WebKit already on your computer, oh no they must install their own. Which means another auto-updater, and then more random delays when you actually go to use these apps. You were told that ‘it was better in the app’, but at best, it’s exactly the same. It’s better in the app, if ‘better’ means downloading the latest daily Chromium patch at 8MB/s for what seems like minutes. I’m looking at you Discord, this shit seriously worked better ten years ago with Skype.

As an aside…

I’m currently playing with the Arc browser, which does have an interesting take on this—you can pin tabs, however they then become visually distinct from your other open pages, shrinking down to a small icon and joining a grid of your other pins above the vertical tab bar (which I’m still deciding on if I like or not.) It’s impossible to remove a pin with Cmd+W, instead it simply closes the ’tab’ of the app. This gives these pinned sites a kind of permanence in your browser, whilst simultaneously keeping the user in control; when you’re done with them, you  can close them, but the icon is not going to unexpectedly disappear, and you can rely on them to remain in the same place. Which is good, because you’re most likely going to be pinning web apps that you use often, and wish to access quickly. Pins can be sorted into spaces, which help you separate your work apps from your personal apps, and so on. It gives these applications the kind of prominence they deserve on your computer, and no more, sharing the browser infrastructure with whatever else has to render HTML during your day. Speed however, does leave a bit to be desired—I may be back on Firefox sooner than I think.

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