"Writing an app is like coding for LaserDisc"


11 years ago to the day, I was at a tech conference. It was 3 year after the iPhone had launched its app SDK. Those of us who had been in the mobile game a while had already spent years developing apps for Symbian, BlackBerry, Windows CE, and at least a dozen other OSes which I've since scrubbed from my memory.

But apps were the hip "new" thing, apparently. And there were a lot of people who were passionately invested in the idea the Steve Jobs™️ would save us all.

And, some of us, thought this was bunkum. With this memorable comparison being made:

11 years later, and I think Jeremy Keith (@adactio) was right.

For those of you too young to remember, a LaserDisc was like a CD ROM about the size of a vinyl record1.

The LaserDisc was, I think it is fair to say, not a commercial success. In the 1980s, the BBC built an amazing Doomsday2 Project on LaserDisc. It had a prototype version of Street View. But a few years later, there was no hardware capable of playing the discs.

The same is true of most modern smartphones. If you wrote an app for an early version of iOS or Android, it simply won't run on modern hardware or software. APIs have changed, SDKs weren't designed with forward compatibility, and app store requirements have evolved.

The web has none of that. The earliest websites are viewable on modern browsers3. Sure, sometimes they might render in unexpected ways. And you might hope the servers they run on have been updated with security patches. But a website from the 1990s still works three decades later.

An app released a single decade ago is unlikely to run.

Even if the OS had a compatibility mode, it still requires the developer to stay up to date with all the various changes to app store policies. App stores are a gatekeeper.

The web doesn't have gatekeepers4. If you pay for your domain and hosting, your site will be viewable.

Of course, there are still some things which the web can't do. And there are some things where users prefer an in-app experience rather than tabbing through a browser.

And, of course, conferences are for big discussions rather than subtle nuance!

It's worth having a look through all the Tweets from the day. I'm sure some people have long since deleted their messages or accounts. But there's still a treasure-trove of wisdom from when we were all much younger and much more self-confident.

I particularly like this snarky video from Relly Annett-Baker:

Ironically, many of the web links are now dead. But they've mostly been captured by the Internet Archive to be enjoyed for many years to come.

I wonder whether apps will become part of a digital dark ages which are lost to the future?


  1. If you don't get either of those references, you are too short for this ride. Don't get old. It's a trap! 
  2. Or Domesday. Take your pick. 
  3. The notable exception is those websites built with proprietary technology like Flash. 
  4. OK, well, it is complicated. An ISP or CDN could block you. Optional local filters could also restrict your access. WIPO might rule your domain violates copyright. But it is all a bit more flexible than "Apple says no". 

15 thoughts on “"Writing an app is like coding for LaserDisc"

  1. says:

    An app from 10 years ago won't run on a modern OS, but a browser from 10 years ago won't render a modern website, either. In fact, it won't even be able to talk HTTPS to server and receive the web page.


    1. kb says:

      a browser from 10 years ago won't render a modern website

      That's more comparable to trying to run modern apps on a 10-year-old mobile OS.

      Good luck with that.

    2. Chris says:

      You changed the equation to make it evaluate differently, then implied that changes the outcome of the unaltered equation. That's not how logic works.

  2. Gil’ darn it says:

    Heck, you can’t even upgrade from macOS 10.8.4 recovery because Apple update website has disabled TLSv1.1

  3. Totally agree! IMO the only digital files that are sure to work on any computer decades from now are HTML/CSS, text/JPEG/PDF/Word/Excel files, C/C++ code and probably Win32 API binaries.

  4. Joe Verit says:

    When did Sega have a LaserDisc interface?

    Meanwhile, LaserDisc WAS a commercial success. Not as big as it should have been, but it lasted from the '70s until DVD reached widespread acceptance after 1997. And you can still play LaserDiscs today; they are uncompressed and unencumbered by "DRM."

  5. So Videodiscs aren't the worst things to archive, networks of servers running code that isn't available or archivable are, and we are building a lot more of those these days, whether on the web or in apps.

  6. As an Android developer on the side, I get so frustrated how Google constantly deprecates features and requires new uploads to comply with the latest hotness. I've had to pull apps from the Play Store (some that I've loved) because I simply don't have time to keep up with all the latest requirements.

  7. I love this: Terence takes eleven years to reflect on a comment I made on stage at an event here in Brighton. It’s all about the longevity of the web compared to native apps:

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