-Mar 8, 2015
The web isn’t dying, but in checking its pulse, we could be worried about the wrong patient, maybe the web browser is?
Wired magazine proclaimed the death of the web browser way back in 1997, when push technology was going to take over the world, and again there was a panic in 2010. Now it’s The Wall Street Journal’s turn in a recent article by Christopher Mims proclaiming the rise of the native app.
Mountains of data tell us that, in aggregate, we are spending more time in apps that, previously, we once spent surfing the Web. We’re in love with apps, and they’ve taken over. On phones, 86% of our time is spent in apps, and just 14% is spent on the Web, according to mobile-analytics company Flurry.
This might seem like just a % change however in the old days, we printed out directions from the website MapQuest that were often wrong or confusing. Today we call up Waze or g-maps on our phones and are routed around traffic in real time. For those who remember the old way, this is a miracle.
Everything about apps feels like a win for users—they are faster and easier to use than what came before. But underneath all that convenience is something sinister: the end of the very openness that allowed Internet companies to grow into some of the most powerful or important companies of the 21st century.
Take that most essential of activities for e-commerce: accepting credit cards. When Amazon.com made its debut on the Web, it had to pay a few percentage points in transaction fees. But Apple takes 30% of every transaction conducted within an app sold through its app store, and “very few businesses in the world can withstand that haircut,” says Chris Dixon, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz.
App stores, which are shackled to particular operating systems and devices, are walled gardens where Apple, Google , Microsoft and Amazon get to set the rules. For a while, that meant Apple banned Bitcoin, an alternative currency that many technologists believe is the most revolutionary development on the Internet since the hyperlink. Apple regularly bans apps that offend its politics, taste, or compete with its own software and services.
But the problem with apps runs much deeper than the ways they can be controlled by centralized gatekeepers. The Web was invented by academics whose goal was sharing information. Tim Berners-Lee was just trying to make it easy for scientists to publish data they were putting together during construction of CERN, the world’s biggest particle accelerator.
No one involved knew they were giving birth to the biggest creator and destroyer of wealth anyone had ever seen. So, unlike with app stores, there was no drive to control the early Web. Standards bodies arose—like the United Nations, but for programming languages. Companies that would have liked to wipe each other off the map were forced, by the very nature of the Web, to come together and agree on revisions to the common language for Web pages.
The result: Anyone could put up a Web page or launch a new service, and anyone could access it. Google was born in a garage. Facebook was born in Mark Zuckerberg ’s dorm room.
But app stores don’t work like that. The lists of most-downloaded apps now drive consumer adoption of those apps. Search on app stores is broken.
The Web was intended to expose information. It was so devoted to sharing above all else that it didn’t include any way to pay for things—something some of its early architects regret to this day, since it forced the Web to survive on advertising.
The Web wasn’t perfect, but it created a commons where people could exchange information and goods. It forced companies to build technology that was explicitly designed to be compatible with competitors’ technology. Microsoft’s Web browser had to faithfully render Apple’s website. If it didn’t, consumers would use another one, such as Firefox or Google’s Chrome, which has since taken over.
Today, as apps take over, the Web’s architects are abandoning it. Google’s newest experiment in email nirvana, called Inbox, is available for both Android and Apple’s iOS, but on the Web it doesn’t work in any browser except Chrome. The process of creating new Web standards has slowed to a crawl. Meanwhile, companies with app stores are devoted to making those stores better than—and entirely incompatible with—app stores built by competitors
The contrary and more positive view comes from John Gruber of ‘daring fireball’ who asserts that: “The rise of native apps has brought more innovation, rather than diminished it.
If you expand your view of ‘the Web’ from merely that which renders inside the confines of a Web browser to instead encompass all network traffic sent over HTTP/S, the explosive growth of native mobile apps is just another stage in the growth of the Web,”
Gruber is asserting a definition of the web that suits his argument. It’s a good argument and fair in its analysis however what does this say about the issue of control?
We shall wait and see however I am looking to spread my buying online and decrease my ‘apple app’ spends because a 30% cut just aint right 🙂