This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on weekdays.
Allow me to ask a wild question: what if we played games, went shopping, watched Netflix, and read the news on our smartphones – without using apps?
Our smartphones, like our computers, would mostly be gateways to go online via a web browser.
Why bother to change? Because the disadvantages of our app system – mainly the control that Apple and Google, the dominant app store owners in much of the world, have over our digital lives – are onerous enough to make us think of another path.
Technical barriers remain to using smartphone websites for everything. We're used to apps too. In the past few months, Microsoft's Xbox video game console, the popular Fortnite game, and other game companies have developed technologies that enable video games to be played in smartphone web browsers.
That's a big deal. Games are among the most popular smartphone apps and are often technically demanding. If video games are inches away from apps, then so can any other industry.
Even small erosions in our app system raise two big questions: Have apps outlived their usefulness? And if apps didn't dominate, would we have more choices of digital services from a wider range of companies?
The first thing to understand about apps is this: They weren't inevitable. In the early smartphone era, there was a tug-of-war between technologies that were more like websites and the apps we know today. Apps won, mainly because they were technically superior.
But web browsers have become more powerful, and cloud computing is now making it possible for many complex things to be done from the physical phone.
I got interested in this topic for the first time because Aram Zucker-Scharff, who helps oversee digital ad technology at the Washington Post, has tweeted for years that apps were a bug and it was time, most of ours Shift smartphone activity to increasingly sophisticated mobile websites.
One of Zucker-Scharff's points concerns control. Apple and Google govern much of what is allowed on the world's phones. This gives good results, including companies sorting out bad or dangerous apps and giving us a place to find them.
However, this brings with it unfortunate side effects. Apple and Google charge a substantial fee for many in-app purchases and have forced app makers to workarounds. (Have you ever tried to buy a Kindle e-book for an iPhone app? You can't.) The growing complaints from app makers indicate that the disadvantages of app control may outweigh the advantages.
Do you know what's free from Apple and Google's iron grip? The network. Smartphones could instead rely on the web.
It's easy to believe that app battles are just a group of powerful companies – Fortnite owners Epic Games and Spotify, for example – fighting for money with even more powerful companies like Apple and Google. However, it is more than that.
The point here is to envision an alternate reality where businesses don't have to spend money building apps that are tailored for iPhones and Android phones, can't work on any other device, and require app makers to do a part of each Pass sale.
Perhaps more smaller digital companies could thrive. Maybe our digital services would be cheaper and better. Maybe we would have more than two dominant smartphone systems. Or maybe it would be awful. We don't know because for the most part we have lived with the undisputed dominance of the smartphone app.
Overturning the app system is difficult and may not be worth the effort. However, I get the idea that the errors of the app system cannot be fixed and it is worth looking for alternatives that minimize the role of apps in our digital lives.
Should Facebook really have that much power?
Facebook is a company. It is also the world's largest experiment to control mass consciousness. (Yes, I'm purposely provocative. It's not literally mind control.)
Please read this article by my colleagues about software changes Facebook made to turn off divisive posts in its newsfeed and to focus more on information from authoritative news sources about the US election.
These changes sparked internal debates at Facebook about balancing the benefits of quieter online interactions with potential corporate finances and potential political setbacks, reported Kevin Roose, Mike Isaac, and Sheera Frenkel.
It's a fascinating look behind the scenes of how Facebook rules an online meeting place of billions. And her article shows that Facebook is not a static product. It is constantly evolving in response to corporate goals and outside pressure.
Those who believe Facebook has too much control over what information people see in its news feed will rub against the kind of tinkering my co-workers wrote about.
But let me say for the zillionth time that everything we see or don't see on Facebook is the result of conscious decisions by the company. Facebook is constantly making changes to change what information we see and to reshape our interactions. And that has always been the case. Many popular internet services are the same.
No matter how you feel about Facebook, it's wild that a company controlled primarily by one person has so much influence over the preferences and behaviors of billions of people – essentially making big decisions mostly alone and in secret .
As even Facebook executives have asked at times, should we really be leaving so much power in the hands of a company?
Before we go …
A computer could write this better than me: My colleague Cade Metz has the best explanation I've read about a technology known as GPT-3 that analyzes tons of published words to spit out computer-generated language that sounds like humans. And he tried a few Modern Love columns. (I'll hear more from Cade in Wednesday's newsletter.)
Why Your Son May Struggle With Virtual Classes: Distance learning has been difficult for many children and families. However, the Wall Street Journal writes of some research that pinpoints the distractions of virtual teaching and lack of motivation can cause boys to fall further behind girls in academic performance.
When virtual violence is an escape from reality: The group mobile game PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds, filled with death and destruction, is widespread throughout Afghanistan, almost as an escape from the reality of a country sunk in war, write my colleagues Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Fatima Faizi.
Look, a newborn donkey takes its first awkward steps. (This video is from 2017, but it's new to me!)
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you would like us to explore. You can reach us at [email protected]
If you do not have this newsletter in your inbox yet, please register here.