The Wayback Machine for Apps

Mobile and tablet apps change all the time, but there is no public record of the way an app’s user interface evolves with each new revision. What we need is a version of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine for apps, but unfortunately because of the siloed nature of this class of software, it’s not possible to simply deploy bots to create one for us.

It occurred to me that one viable alternative would be to crowdsource something similar to the Wayback Machine by creating an app that would let any user upload screen grabs to a central archive on the Web. That sounds much more manual than the Internet Archive’s approach, l know, but in fact I think it could actually be fairly well automated.


Introducing the Appback Machine, Hopefully

Here’s what I’m thinking. Contributing users — basically anyone who wants to take part in the project — would simply take screen grabs from their favorite apps, as many as they want. On iOS, that can be done from anywhere within the operating system by pressing the Home button and the power button at the same time, with the resulting screen grab getting dropped into the Photos app where it’s available to any other app that cares to access it.

Our hypothetical archiving app — let’s call it “Appback” for now — would simply be a tool for getting those screen grabs from the Photos app and uploading them to the Appback server. Easy, right?

Appback Mountain

Wait, don’t the screen grabs need to be tagged and identified with the name of their originating apps? Yes, they do, but this is where the automation magic would come in.

First, it would be pretty simple for Appback to discern which of the pictures within the Photos app are screen grabs (as opposed to ‘natural’ shots taken with the phone’s camera), and pass that information along to the server.

It’s even well within the limits of current technology to analyze the picture data from each screen grab and make a guess that, say, these screen grabs are from Foursquare, these are from Instagram, these are from Angry Birds, etc. This sort of identification could be done on the Appback server, and if there’s any ambiguity, the server would just send a message right back to the user and say, “Here are the two or three apps we think this is from, can you help us identify which one it actually was?”

If there are no matches, the user would be asked to type one in, with automatic matching against names from a database of known apps from the app store. Over time, as the corpus of identified screen grabs grows larger and more accurate, this disambiguation process would happen less and less often across all users, reducing the contribution process to simply a matter of uploading screen grabs.

To motivate users to contribute, Appback could institute some kind of points or rewards system, so the users who are first to post screen grabs for a new app or a new revision would receive recognition within the Appback system. With enough users contributing, it wouldn’t take long at all to build a fairly robust, Web-based gallery of screen grabs for the most popular iOS apps, which would be a huge benefit to app designers and developers everywhere.

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9 Comments

  1. I wonder if something even more automated like periodic scraping of the App Store website and grabbing the screen shots posted there might work better.

    So many apps I use would hold too much personal data for me to want those screenshots stored as part of this archive. The developers have already posted images on the App Store with fake data in place which would solve that issue. Also you could easily using this method know the exact version number and app name without resorting to some image detection algorithm.

    The downside to this would be that not all developers update their images with each version, and you’d also get all those obnoxious screenshots developers use (especially with games) that wrap the screenshot in additional marketing copy and images.

  2. A good idea – but thats hard enough when something as big as Android provides absolutely no simple means to take screenshots without some might-work-on-some-if-your-device-is-rooted software.

  3. I have just been thinking of this lately for the big book of mobile design, due to the publisher /friday/.

    I don’t just want the coolest stuff today, so have gone out of my way to take /photos/ of old stuff (1,100 shots just this weekend), like a Palm IIIc. And, I am happy I kept stuff like all my N95 screenshots from like 3 years ago.

    FWIW, here’s my set of stuff.

  4. Preserving the evolution of an app’s interface is noble for future study, but I wonder if it’s possible to retain the real value. Screenshots (videos too, I’m afraid) don’t capture the “feel” of interactive design. Without a responding backend and datastore I’m skeptical that something like Appback could ever truly inform how it worked more than how it looked?

  5. Brendan: I agree, it would be ideal if there was some way to capture the full experience in an archive. This is one of the biggest problems facing the UX craft and will be one of the regrets of future historians, I think. However, that shouldn’t mean we shouldn’t bother at least documenting the UI and the look of these apps today.

  6. Khoi: Double true. There is definite value to be found in static representations; the paleontology field comes to mind. Insert six-foot turkey reference here.

    Enabling structure like Dribbble’s Add to Project mechanism over a shared repository like Ember (which incidentally shuts down in 5 days) would have been a great start. The lack of an Appback already threatens the future understanding of this comment it seems.

  7. If I have understood you correctly, we will be launching a service similar to the one you describe in a few months. It’s called Patterns of Design (PoD), and the idea is to create an online gallery for discovering the best in app design.

    Initially, the service will be curated with users submitting their screen grabs directly to me. Eventually, and once we have the various components in place, it will become a lot more like ‘Appback’ with users uploading their own screen grabs.

    The plan was to launch with galleries for iOS and Android, but we may need to revise this as finding enough Android apps is proving a problem. Discoverability is the main problem; another is quality: for all its success as a market leader, Android comes a distant second when it comes to the design of apps…!

    I’ll let you know about the site nearer the time.