A high-impact cover story in Wired magazine in 2010 asserted in its title: “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” Authors Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff argued that the World Wide Web was “in decline” and “apps” were in ascendance. This is not just a debate about technology use and which businesses will prevail. It involves different visions of the way that people will access information, learn, amuse themselves, and create material with others in the digital era.
Anderson and Wolff stated their case this way:
As much as we love the open, unfettered Web, we’re abandoning it for simpler, sleeker services that just work ….This is not a trivial distinction. Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to closed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display….
Because the screens are smaller, such mobile traffic tends to be driven by specialty software, mostly apps, designed for a single purpose. For the sake of the optimized experience on mobile devices, users forgo the general-purpose browser. They use the Net, but not the Web. Fast beats flexible…
This was all inevitable. It is the cycle of capitalism. The story of industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over control. A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others. It happens every time.…
The wide-open Web of peer production, the so-called generative Web where everyone is free to create what they want, continues to thrive, driven by the nonmonetary incentives of expression, attention, reputation, and the like. But the notion of the Web as the ultimate marketplace for digital delivery is now in doubt.
They clearly forecast the rise of the mobile Web, but the debate they launched with the apps vs. Web formulation continues. It is in part a debate about the future of the personal computer vs. smaller, portable mobile devices. It is also central to the debate about the environment in which people gather and share information.
Others have shared concerns, including a warning in the December 2011 issue of Scientific American in which Web creator Tim Berners-Lee wrote, “The Web as we know it is being threatened,” adding that it “could be broken into fragmented islands.”
The trends are quite clear. Mobile tools such as smartphones, tablets, netbooks, and laptop computers are now a primary source of Internet connectivity in highly developed nations, and the uptake of technology tools in less-developed regions of the world has also been dominated by small, wireless devices. The latest surveys of American adults by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project show that nearly two-thirds connect to the Web via a smartphone, tablet computer, or an on-the-go laptop computer.
According to estimates by Cisco, by 2016 there will be 10 billion mobile Internet devices in use globally. The world population is expected to be 7.3 billion in 2016, so that’s 1.4 devices per person on the planet. Smartphone traffic will grow to 50 times the size it is today by 2016. In fact, Cisco’s “Visual Networking Index,” released in February, reports there will be so much traffic generated between 2015 and 2016 by smartphones, tablets, and laptops that the amount of Internet data movement added for that year alone will be three times the estimated size of the entire mobile Internet in 2012.
The boom in mobile connectivity has been accompanied by a boom in innovation and sales of targeted software applications (apps). Apple’s iPhone and its App Store debuted in June 2007; the iPad debuted in April 2010. On March 3, Apple announced that 25 billion apps had been downloaded. Similarly, Google’s Android Market hit 10 billion downloads by December 2011, and users have been downloading apps at a rate of 1 billion a month.
In June 2011, researchers reported that time spent on apps began to outpace time spent on the desktop or mobile Web. The change reflected a 91% increase in time spent with apps between June 2010 and June 2011. In December 2011, the technology forecasting firm The Gartner Group predicted, “By 2015 mobile application development projects targeting smartphones and tablets will outnumber native PC projects by a ratio of 4-to-1. Smartphones and tablets represent more than 90% of the new net growth in device adoption for the coming four years.” Gartner predicts that 1 billion smartphones will be sold in 2014 – about double the number of PCs it expects will be sold that year.
Over the past year a number of prominent technology experts, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, have been proclaiming the focus of software innovation has nearly completely shifted from an emphasis on designing tools for use on full-size personal computers to designing for mobile devices – especially smartphones and tablets.
The Pew Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center invited experts and Internet stakeholders to predict where things might be by the end of the decade. They were asked to take sides in the apps vs. Web debate by choosing among alternative visions of where things will stand in 2020. A number of survey participants who are most attuned to the nuances of this particular issue responded that the outcome will be a mix; they said apps and the Web are converging in the cloud. Some argued that the language framing the question did not frame the issue well. While most people agreed with the statement that the Web will generally be stronger than ever by 2020, many who chose that view noted that it is more their hope than their firm prediction. Some 35% disagreed that the Web would be in better shape, and a number of survey participants said the outcome will be a combination of both scenarios.
The survey questions are written to generate detailed written responses, not to derive a clear-cut statistical outcome, so respondent choices are not a representative measure. Some 59% agreed with the statement:
In 2020, the World Wide Web is stronger than ever in users' lives. The open Web continues to thrive and grow as a vibrant place where most people do most of their work, play, communication, and content creation. Apps accessed through iPads, Kindles, Nooks, smartphones, Droid devices, and their progeny—the online tools GigaOM referred to as "the anti-Internet"—will be useful as specialized options for a finite number of information and entertainment functions. There will be a widespread belief that, compared to apps, the Web is more important and useful and is the dominant factor in people's lives.
Some 35% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:
In 2020, most people will prefer to use specific applications (apps) accessible by Internet connection to accomplish most online work, play, communication, and content creation. The ease of use and perceived security and quality-assurance characteristics of apps will be seen as superior when compared with the open Web. Most industry innovation and activity will be devoted to apps development and updates, and use of apps will occupy the majority of technology users' time. There will be a widespread belief that the World Wide Web is less important and useful than in the past and apps are the dominant factor in people's lives.
These findings come from an opt-in, online survey of a diverse but non-random sample of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics. The study was fielded between August 28 and October 31, 2011.
Respondents were asked to select the one statement of the two scenarios above with which they mostly agreed. The question was framed this way in order to encourage a spirited and deeply considered written elaboration about the potential future of hyperconnected people. While 59% agreed with the statement that most people will trust and rely upon the open Web to access and share information over the Internet, a significant number of the survey participants said the true outcome will reflect parts of both scenarios, and some people said their choice of the Web as the winner was their “vote” for what they hope to be the 2020 outcome.
Here is a sampling of their predictions and arguments:
The case for the Web
- The robust nature of the Web’s architecture and the appeal of the diversity of the Web will not go away, even as economic imperatives push toward Apps. “The World Wide Web may evolve significantly, but the core design of open and scalable will make it the compelling solution,” wrote Robert Cannon, senior counsel for Internet law for the Federal Communications Commission. This is the way that Allison Mankin, a computer-networking expert formerly with the National Science Foundation, puts it: “Economic forces and our tendency to prefer smaller pictures lead to a view that there will be consolidation and apps will dominate, but in the big picture, I cannot see the highly diverse, millions to billions of destinations going away. The ability of the Net to accommodate unlimited diversity will continue and therefore there will be an open Web, never fully open because there are many competing forces, but diversified and fast-moving, as a reflection of human society’s restless character.”
- The more blunt version of that verdict comes from Jeff Jarvis, blogger and City University of New York professor: “The browser—or its future equivalent—will continue to have key advantages over apps. They are connected to the entire Net, they offer full interoperability, and they give the user more power than the developer or publisher. Yes, publishers have dreamed that apps would return to them the control of content, experience, business model, and pricing that the Net took from them, but they are merely deluding themselves. The value is not in their control of content but in the ability to become platforms for users to do what they want to do.”
- “The gated bubble worlds formed by app markets, Facebook, and other private spaces will bloom and fade, while people will keep gathering in the open spaces.” – Jerry Michalski, founder of Relationship Economy Expedition and consultant at the Institute for the Future
New information protocols will ease the Web-experience and also change it
- Web evolution to HTML5 protocols and beyond will build upon its relevancy and functionality. HTML5 is the latest version of the HyperText Markup Language used to create Web pages. The term is most often used to refer to what is actually a suite of approaches (including HTML5, CSS, SVG, WOFF, and others) that Web architects use to orchestrate interactive text, graphics, video, audio and other elements on Web pages. The evolution to HTML5 is allowing people to create more dynamic Web content, making it possible to write browser-accessible Web apps that are as appealing and interactive as the device-specific apps so popular now on smartphones and tablets. The newest versions of browsers, including Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari, can easily read HTML5 pages without using “plug ins” which can sometimes cause usability problems. While these improvements are still under development, they are being actively deployed and broad interoperability for the full suite is targeted for 2014. HTML5 is particularly helpful for rendering Web content that looks great on PCs and mobile devices. A number of key analysts pin their hopes on that. “HTML5 is going to make the Web very attractive,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. Adds Rob Scott, chief technology officer for Nokia: “Once HTML5 browsers and fully capable Web runtimes are in place on the common Kindle through iPhone, the Web app will begin replacing native apps.”
- Consumer perceptions will shape the future. As Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, framed it: “The real question is whether consumers will perceive those HTML5-based apps as part of the Web. What is worrying is a landscape in which so many people interact with the Web through these tiny little pinholes created by individual apps. If users’ experience of the Web is largely through the lens of their apps, will they still perceive themselves as users of the Web? Will they feel like they have a stake in Web standards, access, interoperability, and Net neutrality? Given how hard it is to engage today’s users in these issues, it’s hard to see how people who have grown up or lived behind the app wall will really feel connected to the Web as a whole.”
- The Web and apps are merging online in various forms as people come to depend upon remote access to information and tools in “the cloud”— that is, on remote servers. “The experience when you visit a webpage and the experience when using an app will converge, possibly to the point where there is little practical difference,” argued Mark Watson, senior engineer for Netflix. Jeffrey Alexander, senior technology analyst at SRI International, said, “In general the Web will come to resemble a segment within the ‘app economy’ more than the reverse. The current incarnation of the Web will continue to be important for certain kinds of human-computer interaction, particularly those that require sustained attention and a richer media experience. However, the rise of cloud computing infrastructure means that apps will have comparable processing power and capability as traditional Web applications, and in many cases will be superior to our conception of today’s Web.”
- The Web is the best place to develop and offer applications and the “appification” of the Web is already under way. Paul Gardner-Stephen, telecommunications fellow at Flinders University, noted, “HTML5 and other technologies will continue to blur the line between Web and app, until the average end user would have difficulty assessing the meaning of this question.” William Schrader, a consultant and founder of PSINet, said, “The Web and the apps will be one and the same. The app, if accessed by a large screen (formerly known as a computer) will automatically slide into a large-screen mode to allow more advertising and ease of reading, navigation, and additional information. The webpage will sense when the user leaves the computer and transfer the same information to the departing user’s smartphone (or other device).”
- There is disagreement on whether the browser-based Web will survive. Technology consultant and author Stowe Boyd expects it will be replaced by the app-based model of Web access. “Platform companies—especially Apple and Google—are moving to new meta-architecture principles, such as tablets, touch, and gestural interfaces, ubiquitous connectivity, and social networking,” he noted. “These are being baked into the core platforms.”
The case for apps
- The convenience of using apps as a gateway to getting what you want meets human needs. Those who argued this were not necessarily rooting for it to happen. They tended to cite human preferences and market imperatives pushing towards apps-based solutions to people’s information interests. “Ease of use always wins,” wrote technology author and consultant Fred Hapgood. “People never cared about the Web vs. apps and devices,” commented Mark Walsh, co-founder of geniusrocket.com. “They want free stuff, entertainment, and services when they want them, and on the device they have in front of them.”
- “I have to admit the ‘open’ Web is certainly changing—just ask the 750 million people on the anti-Web, also known as Facebook,” noted David Ellis, director of communication studies at York University.
- The apps approach to accessing information on the Internet is perceived as “closed,” while the traditional Web paradigm is seen as “open.” “I wish it weren’t true, but the history of enclosure, centralization, and consolidation makes me very pessimistic about the open Web winning over the closed apps,” observed Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award winner Seth Finkelstein. “There will always be a Web, but it may end up like the imagery of a person standing on a soapbox, referred to more for its romantic symbolism than mattering in reality.”
- Apps’ ability to meet specific needs becomes a double-edged sword; they simplify life and they create “walled gardens” and a lack of serendipity. “What apps do terribly is the thing that makes so many like John Perry Barlow afraid of this stage of evolution,” observed venture capitalist Richard Titus. “The Web is about discovery and serendipity, it’s about finding something you weren’t looking for; to lose that would be to take a step back in our progress as intellectual humans, the equivalent of burning a digital book.
The case against apps domination
- The rapid global adoption of narrowly targeted software applications—increasingly popular because of their ease of use on mobile devices—is negatively impacting creativity, innovation, and individuality on the World Wide Web. Former White House technology advisor Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard University and founder of OneWebDay, responded, “Apps are like cable channels—closed, proprietary, and cleaned-up experiences…I don’t want the world of the Web to end like this. But it will, because people’s expectations have been shaped by companies that view them as consumers. Those giant interests will push every button they can: fear, inexperience, passivity, and willingness to be entertained. And we’ll get a cleaned-up world that we can be perfectly billed for. It’s not good.”
- “Instead of couch potatoes you’ll have app-potatoes,” predicted Giacomo Mazzone, head of institutional relations for the European Broadcasting Union
The apps vs. Web framing of this issue is a false dichotomy
Tony Smith of the Open Source Developers Club in Melbourne, Australia said as much: “Both will continue to grow in ways that are impossible for most to imagine…. Apps are generally better for narrowly defined repetitive tasks, especially where your needs can be narrowed by your location, time, etc. The Web will remain better for asynchronous exploring and continue its gateway role.”
- Many anonymous responders challenged the structure of the apps-Web question. Among their arguments: The world ahead is not either apps or the Web. A more hybrid world is likely. Moreover, the tussle between controlled content and user experiences on the one hand and openness on the other hand will play out in other ways. As one anonymous writer put it: “Apps will continue, as will app stores, but they’ll continue to be mass-market outlets for lightweight products on the one hand, and very narrow vertical outlets for very specific platform-dependent professional tools on the other, while the entire middle-ground will continue to belong to the Web.”
Futurist John Smart, founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, looks beyond 2020 and sees apps as merely a passing phase in Internet evolution. “Apps are a great intermediate play, a way to scale up functionality of a primitive Web,” he said, “but over time they get outcompeted for all but the most complex platforms by simpler and more standardized alternatives. What will get complex will be the ‘artificial immune systems’ on local machines. What will get increasingly transparent and standardized will be the limited number of open Web platforms and protocols that all the leading desktop and mobile hardware and their immune systems will agree to use. The rest of the apps and their code will reside in the long tail of vertical and niche uses.”