Sunday, September 11, 2011

Distinction between sites and apps is RSS

James Pearce wrote a substantial post about the distinction between sites and apps. He says the distinction matters only to developers and not for users. I think there is another measure of the distinction than his fat versus thin client. This is my response. 

The distinction is only relevant, as you say, for developers. The reason is simply because "interface is content." Or perhaps put another way "interface is the message."

Take some content and provide a simple HTML interface. Put the same content in a JS/CSS3/HTML5 interface and the message is different. People will "read" it differently and have a different user experience.

So the distinction becomes blurred in my view as soon as you cross the pure HTML line. Ask yourself at what point does adding JS/CSS3/HTML5 take the content from site to app? I suggest there is not a brightline using that (ie. fat client) as a measure.

However, there may be another measure. Again, it may not be a brightline, but it does help.

Sites can support an RSS feed while apps don't. 

Let me add to the comment that I left.

The post argues that the distinction fat versus thin, that the code resides on the browser versus the server. It also argues that users don't care.

First, take the New York Times or any newspaper or news source. Does it really matter if I read the story in an app or off their site? They support RSS so I can read the story on other sites, in RSS readers and apps that support RSS.

Then take an app like Pulse or other news apps. I can read an MSNBC story with the app or on the MSNBC site. But I don't find Pulse stories on MSNBC. Pulse cannot support an RSS feed because it does not create stories.

So I would argue that the user experience between the Pulse app and the New York Times app is substantially different because the users know the source of the content. Therefore, as a developer, you'd design the app to the user expectation.

Now that is a simple, legacy example.  Let's add some web features. Many sites, not just news sites, all users to comments. Comment systems support RSS feeds or other notification methods (e.g., email).  Certainly comments are not an app.

More modern day are sites like Quora. The content is not news stories but there is new, relevant content. They use the headline of "Feed" on the main page. Clearly Quora is a site.

And finally, let's look at the classical app: the todo app. Put a todo app on any smartphone for personal use and all of the generated content can stay on the phone. It would be a useful app without any interaction with the internet. Even if you sync the todos with other devices which would require servers somewhere, the bulk of the app in on the phone. But more importantly the data source is on the phone. You could sync with RSS (or a JSON equivalent) but is that feed really useful for the public? It is core to the purpose?

In summary, you've got a site when the content supports a RSS feed. The purpose of an app is confined to the device. The distinction my not matter to developers, but user know when a site can support an RSS feed, even if they don't know what RSS is.

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