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LN 007

Atomized apps

What if the app that brings data into your system does not have to be the app that renders it?

In the case of email, for example, the app that connects to IMAP, syncs changes bidirectionally, and caches emails in a database could be separate from the app that renders emails and the inbox environment with controls for acting on your messages — and this separation has some real advantages.

In LN 006 we began to explore this concept, starting with the interface. To recap: the system allows you to pick what view component is used to render all items of a certain type across your system, or to quickly flip between applicable view components for one specific item. Further, these view components can come from any installed app. See LN 006 for the demos and discussion.

Extending that definition of allowing for the atomization of the view, we also allow for the atomization of other app components. This means you might have one app that brings your email into your system and another app to render those emails.

This form of atomized app has some important benefits for the user, the developer, and for preparing the system for future expansion into new technologies.

Beyond the GUI

By separating our data sources from our rendering views, we free up the data we use in our applications to be consumed not just by view components that render the data in a GUI (graphical user interface) as we saw in LN 006, but also by components that offer user interaction with that data through other media: voice, VR, and so on. This has important ramifications for both accessibility and the development of personal computing environments with future technologies.

Today, if a user cannot use just one of the main hardware components of their devices (mouse, keyboard, screen, touchscreen), they are left with a tremendously more difficult experience in personal computing. And, as personal computing devices have increasingly become the nexus through which we engage with much of life and many modern professions, this inaccessibility has ramifications that run deep.

The atomization of our apps in personal computing opens up the ability to create more fluid interactions through other media.

Today’s most widely available assistive technologies largely seek to map what a GUI renders on screen into something more accessible — which helps, but is far from ideal.

For example, using today’s operating systems by voice involves screen readers that simply read aloud what is displayed in the interface: the text, menus, and buttons; and voice control that allows you to activate the various controls displayed.

Though helpful, this is fairly crude, with an often low quality result. It’s clear why the result isn’t ideal: it maps the interfaces designed specifically for certain abilities into other ways to use and control them without those abilities.

These assistive tools are a great help to many people, but fall far short of what they deserve.

With atomized apps, we can create the right thing for voice control — no longer an assistive technology, but a new one altogether; one that is focused on accessibility from the start. If we have the data coming from one application, we can install an application not for the rendering of those items in a GUI as we saw in LN 006, but for the use of them through other means, such as voice. That application component would not be based upon some other GUI, it would be written explicitly to be used as, say, a voice-based email client, running off of the same base app (handling interaction with the server, syncing changes, caching results, etc.) as the GUI apps.

Further, the operating system of the future is going to be taken for some long rides through the transformation of technology. If it has outdated and inflexible methods of interaction, large remnants of those methods will stick around for too long within our new technology.

If instead, they are open to building in new forms as new technologies are just being born, then the operating system of the future won’t inhibit their exploration, but rather act as a multiplier force in helping find the unique new ways the new technologies might allow for interaction within personal computing environments.

Benefits users and developers

Many workplaces and universities require the use of a specific email app, not so they can control the user interface, but rather so they can control the protocol or means of connection and data transmission. Even though well intended, many users are then stuck with incredibly inadequate client applications. By allowing for the atomization of our apps in the OS of the future, the workplace can just as well require the use of a specific app that handles connecting to the server and transporting the data according to their requirements, and the user is free to use any view component(s) they prefer for rendering their inboxes and their emails.

Sometimes you want the data from Gmail servers, but you don’t want to use the Gmail app.

The strengths required to develop with IMAP and the strengths required to create a fantastic user environment in email can be very different. The atomization of these two sides of the email app allows for developers to focus on their core strengths (and avoid giving users apps that are inferior in all other areas), and for users to replace components of their system freely according to their needs or preferences.

For example, your system might provide a module for accessing emails on a server via IMAP, but you might install a replacement that also caches your emails in a local database for faster searching. And since the app that accesses IMAP is separate from the app that renders your emails, you can freely make that choice, without having to compromise on other choices of views.

A disturbing trend in email apps of late has been the use of third-party servers to duplicate users’ mailboxes. IMAP is notoriously difficult and slow, so developers of many modern email clients have resorted to this technique which many users do not realize is happening in the background, compromising their privacy and security by putting their sensitive and personal data in unknown hands. With atomized apps, developers could deliver their new idea for rendering inboxes and emails without having to build their own IMAP implementations, and particularly without having to compromise user privacy by putting those implementations on their servers.

You might install a view for emails that lets you block images and a view for your inbox that has a better method of organization — all without having to worry about inferior IMAP implementations, or compromising your privacy and security.

Though email is the example use here, this same phenomenon happens lots in personal computing: your preferred source of some data is very often not where you prefer to actually consume that data (sometimes, it’s the worst place). Weather, podcasts, emails, news, and so on — these things are presented in ways tailored to the publisher’s priorities rather than your own, or even lack the accessibility you need.

Atomized apps let the developers focus on what they’re best at, and lets users pick the best or right component for their setup.

It also lets us distribute independent development among separate, smaller components of apps which can be contributed by separate developers — giving more opportunity for distributed open source development to be a significant part of the operating system of the future.

One thing to be clear on: of course a user does not want to source three different apps to accomplish one task; the point isn’t to separate these pieces as far as possible, rather just to make their separation within the system real. It would be straightforward to offer a single bundle that allows a user to connect to a new protocol and view the data that it transmits, without having to worry about the individual components included.

For example, when podcasting was first introduced, you can imagine that a user would only need to download one bundle to subscribe to and listen to their first podcasts. Years down the line, they can freely swap out the view used to play episodes (for example, to gain a feature like Overcast’s Smart Speed that drops out silent moments).

When you install a new app you’re ready to start using it. But if you decide that you’re happy with what the app gives you access to — say, an RSS service — but you want to have a different view render its items — say, a reader view for RSS feed items that supports dark mode — you can freely swap out that view component.

On the contrary, consider that the operating system would ship with IMAP support built in. When FastMail came out with JMAP, a new and more performant protocol meant to replace the decades-old IMAP, but which still delivers the same data type — emails — to your system, they could ship to our future OS an app that allows your system to connect to its servers via JMAP. They wouldn’t need to ship new view components for emails, drafts, folders, and so on — because you already have those installed. You could install and use their JMAP implementation without having to wait for your email client of choice to adopt it. You could continue using the app you’ve chosen to organize your inbox, and the app you’ve chosen to compose drafts; but now with the improved performance and reliability of FastMail’s implementation of JMAP. And FastMail would not have to worry about recreating all of these pieces of functionality that already exist; they could focus specifically on delivering their implementation of JMAP to users.

Something spark a thought? Email me, or come chat on Mastodon or on Twitter.

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