Question 21 of 365: What is "wrong" with Widgets and App Stores?

Question 21 of 365: What is "wrong" with Widgets and App Stores?

There is a huge insurgence of applications that do a single thing and do it extremely well. They can be served up as a single embeddable object, a facebook app, or simply a standalone piece of software on the iPhone. Every one of them is attempting to find a niche of their own, attempting to carve out that special market that would allow them to be a necessity. And, according to the numbers of Apps downloaded or Mafia Wars games played, they are succeeding in exactly that.

The problem that I see, however, with this model of creation is that no one is trying to change the world anymore. It used to be that any new piece of software was trying to revolutionize the way in which we think about the technologies we use. Operating systems were designed to constantly introduce new ways of interacting with content and interfacing with information. Applications like word processors (and later blogs) helped to create an entire class of highly educated and highly published people. Video cameras revolutionized our ability to capture events and people. Recordable (and more importantly portable) music defines a society more fully than perhaps even its lawmakers might.

These technologies and applications shifted our understanding of what was possible. A widget cannot do this. An app generated for a single device cannot either. Now, some people might argue that live streaming from a cell phone via the app is revolutionary in its own way. Or, that the Facebook connect widget is single-handedly simplifying our ability to login across the web, but these things are incremental, and some would say, inevitable steps forward.

That is why I have no problem with Google trying to digitize the world’s content or buying up power grids or competing with Microsoft directly for a collaborative office suite. They are literally trying to change the world with their products and policies. While they may make a Google Talk Gadget or a Google Maps Widget, their central goal is always in changing the ways in which we find information.

It really isn’t that Widgets or Apps aren’t useful. They really are quite good at helping us figure out which song is playing or to upload files to our cloud-based service. It is much more that they just can’t muster enough to reach for anything greater than that. When everything does one thing well, it may make for a very engaging overall experience, but those little innovations lack a greater purpose. That is why they are so expendable. That is why people can give up so easily any of the tools in the Web 2.0 graveyard.

So, what I would like to see from more Widget makers and App store developers is a reason why they believe that their idea will affect all others that come after them. I want products who are not limited by what is currently in development. I would like to see applications that do not deny that they have the ability to shift entire industries, that can cause teachers to change their methods, or that can lead people to think in new ways. I would hate to lose that, just because we have a way of monitizing the smallest increments of content now. I would hate to think that the era of “thinking big” is over just because everything that we use now is so small.

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  1. Without apps and widgets, are the Droids and iPhones world-changing? Without the little pieces, is the main tool what it strives to be?
    Prior to the platforms for these tools, programmers were still building these kinds of programs. They existed in online communities, they were traded amongst other programmers and recommended to friends of programmers (raise of hand) and it was quaint. Now, there's an audience – a real, live built-in audience for these little programs.
    If the logic holds, this means those people originally tied to the world-changing endeavors now have more space to play. Apple programmers don't need to worry about building apps for the iPhone, the community is doing that. From that community, also, I've got to believe the programmers are drawing inspiration and knowledge. This is to say nothing of the farm league of idea creation that now abounds.
    If anything, the odds of thinking big turning to doing big have greatly improved.

  2. This is the one post that I believe the least out of any of them. While I
    agree with everything that I said, it is hard to imagine actually biting off
    all of what I meant by trying to change the world rather than working on a
    iPhone app.

    I really do value small pieces of creation much more than overarching goals
    that seem to get very little done. I really do admire everyone who is making
    an application that fixes a problem that someone else has. This kind of
    economy makes a lot of sense to me.

    And yet, it is the community that is weird to me. If everyone is trying to
    carve out their own niche, there is something that gets lost in the process.
    They may talk to one another and learn from one another, but the goal
    remains the same: creating a single serving life (a la fight club).

    I like that everyone is using the new platforms to create, I'm just not sure
    that the distribution methods are quite right for true inspiration. I think
    that perhaps what I was driving at was musically based. I would make the
    case that no true musician is trying to be a silo or offering their own
    version that is “better” than another version. They are creating music to be
    distributed in a thousand different ways, and each experience with it is
    unique. Then the music can be taken apart and remixed with other music.

    Until we can have building blocks like chords or remixing tools like
    audacity, I don't really see App Stores solving the biggest problems. I
    could be wrong, though.

  3. Ok, I think I dig this.

    What is it that you think gets lost in the process? What are we missing that
    we would otherwise have without the niche-carving you see?

    I agree with you on the musician point. The thing I don't know how to jive
    is people like Aaron Sorkin who was famous on the set for making certain
    each actor said the exact words on the script. That was how we got *The West
    Wing*. If Sorkin had allowed divergence, if he'd let the actors play with
    the text he'd composed, we would have had something else. I'm not sure what
    point, if any, I'm making with this. I think it's more of a question of what
    to make of it.

  4. I think we are losing the really special moments that happen at a live show
    where one band member takes up an instrument and plays with one of the other
    bands on tour. I think that we are missing the ability to have “guest
    appearances” on projects because we have insulated ourselves within the
    niches we have carved out.

    As for The West Wing, I believe it is a myth that Aaron Sorkin put those
    words together all on his own for 4 seasons. It is a falsehood to think that
    the other collaborators were any less responsible for being vigilant to the
    words as they were presented. They bought into the vision of doing The West
    Wing like that. They were all playing from that “songbook” and those were
    the chords but they all played it their own way. I think that metaphor is a
    bit mixed, but hopefully still makes sense.

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