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Packaging & Distribution in the Digital Age: Or, Why Even Grandma Loves Apps

There's long been a raging debate going over HTML vs. Native Apps. Just Googling the debate returns over 3.7 million results.

I'm here to tell you, that's the wrong way of thinking of things.

It's like debating whether oil or water will win when mixed. You can't get the right answer if you're asking the wrong question. While oil and water don't mix well, they can co-exist in the same bottle, and there are valid times you might want to use each.

Let's dive into the right way to think about mobile, and specifically about the role native apps will play. A better analogy of the mobile landscape is from the point of view of a car manufacturer like Honda. Honda makes a lot of Honda Accords -- they're its bread & butter. But for years, Honda had a Formula One team. A Honda Accord will never compete at the Formula One level, nor was it meant to. And conversely, if Honda only had a Formula One team, it wouldn't have the massive market share in the auto market that the Accord and other bread & butter models provide it, but Honda did learn a lot about how to make really great engines from its Formula One program.

In the same way, mobile apps are the "Formula One" of mobile, and HTML is the Honda Accord. You can get wide distribution across many phones by having a mobile HTML presence, but you can't do the sexy, progressive types of things that you can do with apps, because an app is typically compiled software which can leverage the specific hardware functionality of the phone (the camera, the address book, geolocation, the microphone, and many other things).

APIs: Ambassadors of the Tech Industry

OK I'll admit it:  I'm an API-oholic.  I'm addicted to APIs.  In the nerdy tech world, APIs are old news, but to most regular folks, the term APIs is just a confusing acronym.  It is my goal to de-mystify the API a bit in this post, and explain how APIs are changing the world in very real, tangible ways that will matter to you.

First, a definition and a bit of history.  API stands for Application Programming Interface.  That's also a pretty incomprehensible set of words to most people.   So let's simplify:  For the purpose of this blog post, think of an API as a key that opens a door to a room you really want to get into.

Let's take this fantasy analogy a bit further.  Let's imagine that there are rumors that there's an island in the Pacific ocean that's inhabited by a previously unknown group of humans which have never before had contact with the modern world.  They don't speak English, but it just so happens that their little island is known to have a tremendous stockpile of diamonds and gold.  There's a mad rush by many people to figure out where this island is located so they can lay claim to its natural resources.

But the inhabitants of this Secret Island are smart.  They know how valuable their gold and diamonds are, and they know that by allowing the modern world to find them, they'll be in danger.  So they send an ambassador to strike a compromise, and that ambassador happens to find you (imagine the odds -- it's your lucky day!) The ambassador tells you that the entire modern world can communicate with their island through a special interface they've set up.  And they will answer, but only if the communication happens on very specific terms -- their terms.  They won't answer to any random requests.

This interface he gives you happens to be through a computer terminal.  Well, that's convenient, they know how to use computers. This ambassador gives you a special URL through which you can contact his people.  It looks something like this: http://thedataweb.rm.SecretIsland.gov/data/2010/acs5?key=b48301d897146e8f8efd9bef3c6eb1fcb864cf&get=B02001_001E,NAME&for=state:06,36

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