A long time ago, before the Second Coming of Steve Jobs, I found myself on a drive over the San Francisco Bay Bridge with Michael Young, now Redfin’s Chief Technology Officer. I asked him: “Isn’t some small part of you rooting for Apple?”
Having spent years porting server software for Windows, UNIX and Linux, Mike unhesitatingly said no. “Who wants to spend all day re-writing software so it runs on a Mac?”
With web applications overtaking both desktop programs for writing letters and big back-end systems for storing customer data, we thought we never would: most web software would just talk to other web software, not directly to computers themselves.
But almost every innovative company of the past two years, beginning with Foursquare, has started with a proprietary application, not a website. If a competitor to Redfin started today, it would give us a run for our money by building the best mobile applications for real estate.
All of this comes as a surprise to those of us who said goodbye to apps in 1999. Back then, if you had told me software companies would again be building device-specific applications in lieu of websites, I wouldn’t have believed you. What’s really surprising: that we love doing it.
Apps wired directly to the hardware instead of running in a browser can make the device vibrate or take pictures, they can use the accelerometer or support gesture-based navigation. It’s fun to write software like that.
And this is the reason that I think we’ll continue to see proprietary applications. iPhone and Android apps may be, as Sasha Aickin observed in his excellent comparison of HTML 5 and native applications, an historical aberration, a temporary, Steve Jobs-induced distortion in the space-time continuum.
Or the web may be dead, as Chris Anderson just declared in his Wired cover story about the increase in apps that use the Internet but don’t run in a browser.
I agree with TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld that Chris under-estimates how wearying it is for software companies to support different devices, and how slowly online services will evolve — Redfin still doesn’t show school ratings in its iPhone app, let alone on Android or iPads – if they have to be re-written three or four times for every device.
But when I see how excited our engineers get when we talk about building mobile apps, it makes me think that the Apple era of proprietary apps won’t end any time soon.