A World Without Apps

Talk by Michel Beaudouin-Lafon (2019)


…with apps today, you are given full, complex software where you don’t have a choice. You have to have all of it or none of it, and you have to learn it, and you have relearn it at each update, and you have learn a different version when you shift from one vendor to another. (7:35)

…the key idea here is to make tools more generic, general, and independent of the environment in which they are going to be used. (12:50)

I often think about this [Samuel Johnson] quote from my late stepfather’s desk: ‘Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.’ (20:51)

I also strongly believe that users should have a bit more control over security and the risks they are willing to take. We learn by doing, we learn by failing, we learn by doing mistakes, we learn by breaking things. And sometimes I want a secure environment and sometimes I want to see what happens if I put my fingers in the plug. (21:17)

I don’t think it is incompatible to have more flexible environments and security. What I’m advocating for is the ability for people to make choices. (23:24)

I do not believe that this type of change will come from the companies that dominate computing at the moment, in the same way that GUIs didn’t come out of IBM at the time. (30:43)

My take is not to try to directly address the wider audience, but to try with niche markets. (31:20)


  • suggesters: jryans
  • curators: jryans

There’s probably no better clearer calling for what I feel than this. This is the challenge. This is the moral tale. Does software decide all the decisions for people, or is it something else, is it something malleable? That’s why we’re here, and this, to me, is why, is the arch to follow. Making computing malleable. Making computing soft.

Opening the paths to Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework - 1962 (AUGMENT,3906,) - Doug Engelbart Institute.

It’s an inverse Babylon tale. We are a million separate tools scattered around, each speaking our own languages. Trying to emerge a form of computing which is shared, where capabilities & competencies can be crosscutting, is everything.

I keep tending to think the web would be a great medium to try to experiment atop, to try to build data and tools that expose themselves. And the existence of Web Extensions proves there already is a level of cross-site malleability that can be tapped, that users can find; the user agency is real here, in a way it is in few other manifestations of software.

But then getting the data & tools separate from the web is still a young mostly unaddressed challenge. https://remotestorage.io or https://solidproject.org/ both have some way for users to keep & manage their own data, are both some example here.

Loved the interaction with the first commenter. You could not have paid someone to be a more ideal reflexive contrarian. “Ah ha! Gotcha!” But the commenter himself feels like the person who walked on to a rake, to have it slap him in the face. Given that we have so little starting place, we have no idea what the answer to your question is, Mr. Existential Challenger.

This ability to spawn interconnect across the web feels like a root issue:

Consider how many web applications contain their own embedded ‘rich text’ editing widget. If linking were truly at the heart of the web’s design, a user (not just a developer) could supply their own preferred editor easily, but such a feat is almost always impossible. A convivial system should not contain multitudes; it should permit linking to them.
Convivial Design Heuristics for Software Systems

What ambient interconnectivity is possible? Rather than be bound to a specific tool, how do we loosely-couple?

Iframes are a very coarse, very dumb tool, but nonetheless sufficient to enable this. The fact that they’re fairly dumb turns out to be a strength here; there’s nothing new; it doesn’t really take anything that hasn’t already been shipping in every Web browser for the last 10+ years.

Hi there, just joined the community :wave:

I love this topic and strongly believe in the concept. I wanted to mention that I adopted some terminology for this paradigm: App Free Computing. This term was coined by Chris Gebhardt of infocentral.org but I will use it in the context of the Fediverse where we have the potential and opportunity to Reimagine Social.


Welcome! :slightly_smiling_face:

Yes, “app-free computing” seems like a fine term for this slice of malleable space.

Thanks for sharing your fediverse-rooted perspective! As it happens, I’ve been reading up on fediverse technology in recent days. It seems like malleable control to enable user-specific customisations (beyond what your server admin may have arranged) could be especially powerful in the space. I’ll start a new thread or write a post with more on that as it comes together.

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I’d say app-free computing is a good intermediate goal: liberating ourselves from app silos. But then, we must liberate ourselves from the focus on computing, which is the technology but not the goal. We (as a society) haven’t figured out yet how to design-and-evolve information technology which is user-friendly over a large scale of competence and engagement levels.

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Wholly agree. For the Fediverse I use the notion of creating a Peopleverse. Not as a name, but more an idea. Peopleverse is a Social Web where online and offline worlds meet each other seamlessly, in support of people’s day-to-day activities and purpose in life.

I am very annoyed with the trend of “digital transformation” which among others the European Commission is promoting. The term conveys the opposite of what we want. It conveys people having to adjust to the digital world, instead of vice versa. EU/EC also use the term “Internet for Humans”, which should be the norm.

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You point at the wider problem there: the European Commission is an organ of a centralized bureaucracy, and such institutions tend to view all change as top-down. But hierarchical bureaucracies are a technology of the pre-Internet era. They cannot deal with the information flows we now have. So if we ever get a real Internet for Humans, then the European Commission will be either gone or reduced to a minor role.

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I think that warrants a new topic all by itself. I agree with you to an extent. Governments have centralized, hierarchical governance structure. They are often referred to as if they are a single entity. This is sometimes accurate and eases conversation. But when it comes to how decentralized services interact with governments it is best to have the fine-grained view of their structure, where countless bodies “wriggle” for their freedoms within the rigid governance structure. There’ll be countless entry-points, opportunities to interface, countless interfaces and services. From our perspective we should facilitate those best we can. Take centralized bodies as something to deal with. A stakeholder, that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Yes, those friendly little bubbles in big structures are good to know. I am in French academia, which would cease to work without them.

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Related to my mention above of “App Free Computing”, this morning I added some more elaboration in response to a question about meaning of the term, to the SocialHub forum:

I gave a fairly elaborate answer, about how to apply the term and whether or not it needs to be mentioned prominently. In summary:

  • App Free Computing does not need to be prominently featured. It is the paradigm that matters.
  • Applying this paradigm means finding appropriate alternative language within bounded contexts.
  • Deliberate exercise helps see where app abstractions are inappropriate and where not.
    • Valid uses: E.g. analogy of “appliances in your kitchen, that provide a service”.
    • Inappropriate use: A restricted worldview through an App-provided lens (i.e. Fediverse apps).

It would be nice to find a positive term, something to work towards to, rather than defining one’s goal by moving away from something. Something like… “malleable systems”, for example.

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Yea, as a technical term that is an option. For my purposes - targeting the Social Web - that term is Social experience, where its design i.e. SX is defined as follows:

Design of the way people socially interact with other humans throughout the entire lifecycle and evolution of Social Web solutions.

In that definition “solution” refers to “that what satisfies the needs of all stakeholders wrt the system and fits seamlessly in their (business) domain and daily practices”.

The original definition of Toshihiko Yamakami was:

Design of the way a person feels about other humans through a computer-user interface.

Wrt. “malleable systems” as a non-English speaker I feel that the term “moldable” is easier to grasp, more common. This is terminology I’ve chosen for a project I am preparing.

This project involves a tool suite that provides a moldable method of social experience design focused on solutions that can evolve based on needs. The moldability is important, because SX is such a broad field. Every development process is different, so we just provide what we call a “minimum lovable process” that is our opinionated starting point. In that process we offer a method involving needs discovery, domain modeling, process design, and component development. And iterating through that cycle as the solution evolves.


That’s a very nice phrase.

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Thanks! Just trying to come up with friendly terminology. There’s another aspect to SX, and that is that Coding is social. Inclusion means that all stakeholders with their diverse skills can participate. So another such term is an expansion of Dan North’s CUPID Joyful Coding into “Joyful Creation” and we defined “minimum joyful creation” as a future point in time where creators and clients can sufficiently mold the tool suite to their preferences. But this element of Joy goes deeper than that, for instance into the hedonistic motives why people are often involved in FOSS projects (hobby, learning, joy of coding). So there are motivational factors there that can help entice people to collaborate, that we want to bring to the forefront.