Click and connect


The technology industry needs better links with the real-world users of the devices and software it designs, Christian Heilmann tells Jo Bowman

When iPads first hit the market in 2010, Apple famously promised “there’s an app for everything.” Five years later, though, digital developer Christian Heilmann says not only are apps stifling innovation, they’re widening gaps in understanding between how technology is envisaged by technologists and what real-world consumers want to do with it.

Heilmann works with Mozilla, the free software community best known for producing the Firefox web browser. Now its “principal evangelist,” the former journalist says the digital world too often fails to provide the kind of seamless, intuitive and life-enhancing experience consumers expect, instead delivering frustration, dead ends and even security risks.

“The app revolution, as we keep calling it, is a smokescreen,” he says, describing consumers’ apparent love of apps as a kind of Stockholm syndrome. “I know people say they love the simplicity of apps, but that just tells me we just made things far too complex [on the web]. When I started as a web developer in ’96, things had to be simple because the technology wasn’t there and the connections were just too slow. Nowadays, as we have faster connections and faster computers, we just put lots of functionality into web sites that’s not necessarily there to benefit the end user, but because it’s a cool technology.”

But the hidden complexity of apps, Heilmann says, means that every time an app is updated to include a new function, the user needs to re-install it, click to accept new terms and conditions and input passwords – all of which take up time and bandwidth. When a web page is updated, however, the user simply reloads the page. Apps rarely work together or use the security and payment information already loaded on to a handset, creating what Heilmann describes as a frequently depressing experience for users.

“I don’t see as much innovation as I’d like,” he says. Even wearable tech, the current ‘next big thing,’ is disappointing. Heilmann says devices are generally just an extra screen linked to a mobile, with too small an interface to be able to do much. They don’t use gesture or motion controls; they are battery intensive and generate huge amounts of personal data, much of which users happily give away or share with friends online without a though as to what, for instance, their heart-rate data might one day mean to their bank or health insurer. “The main selling point is the health factor, and I don’t think that’s going to last long. I see it myself: I’m very happy that I’ve got my 10,000 steps goal; I feel good when I reach it, but at the same time I’m not going to get out and start running or do something extra because my watch tells me to.”

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