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Summary:

Venture investor Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz and others say they are concerned that the increasing use of mobile apps means less investment in the open web, and that this could have a negative effect on innovation. But is that true?

As the use of mobile devices continues to climb, the use of dedicated apps is also increasing — but is this a natural evolution, or should we be worried about apps winning and the open web losing? Chris Dixon, a partner with venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, argues in a recent blog post that we should be concerned, because it is creating a future in which the web becomes a “niche product,” and the dominant environment is one of proprietary walled gardens run by a couple of web giants — and that this is bad for innovation.

Dixon’s evidence consists in part of two recent charts: one is from the web analytics company comScore, and shows that mobile usage has overtaken desktop usage — an event that occurred in January of this year. The second chart is from Flurry, which tracks app usage, and it shows that apps account for the vast majority of time spent vs. the mobile web, an amount that Flurry says is still growing. I’ve combined the two charts into one (somewhat ugly) graphic below:

Apps vs. web

If apps are winning, is the web losing?

The implication of all this is obvious, says Dixon. Mobile is the future, and what wins on mobile will win the internet — and “right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.” Not only that, but Dixon argues that the problem is likely to get worse, as more companies realize that an app gives them much more control over the user experience than a website. And with less and less investment in making the web experience better on mobile, it will continue to deteriorate, which in turn will push users even further towards the use of apps.

“The likely end state is the web becomes a niche product used for things like 1) trying a service before you download the app, 2) consuming long tail content (e.g. link to a niche blog from Twitter or Facebook feed).”

Why is this worth getting concerned about? Because the app economy creates an environment in which “the rich get richer,” Dixon argues: popular apps dominate the user’s home screen, and therefore get used more, get ranked higher in apps stores, etc. and make more money. The result, he says, is a future “like cable TV – a few dominant channels/apps that sit on users’ home screens and everything else relegated to lower tiers or irrelevance.”

In his own blog post on the topic, Union Square Ventures founder Fred Wilson said the mobile app explosion is already having an impact on innovation. In a recent meeting, Union Square partners looked at their portfolios and “there was a palpable sense that the wide open period of innovation” that existed in 2004 or even 2008 was not as present now, thanks in large part to the rise of native mobile apps.

“It has gotten harder, not easier, to innovate on the Internet with the smartphone emerging as the platform of choice vs the desktop browser.”

Is the open web becoming less relevant?

Open sign

For me at least, this debate brings back memories of a classic Wired magazine cover story from 2010, co-written by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, with the alarming headline “The Web Is Dead.” There was much criticism of the piece at the time — including some from me in a post here — because of the way it described web usage, and also because it didn’t really distinguish between using native apps and apps that were built from open-web technologies like HTML5. That said, however, the future that Wired described — in which users primarily engage with digital content through dedicated apps from providers like Facebook and Twitter and the New York Times — has largely come true.

As a number of commenters on Dixon’s post and at Hacker News have pointed out, the Flurry chart doesn’t break out how much of the app activity is game-related, and this inflates the numbers substantially, given all of the Flappy Bird and Dots and Candy Crush behavior we have seen over the past few years. You can see that in this chart that tech analyst Ben Thompson shared in a guest post on Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg’s blog, in response to the Flurry data:

app-time-spent

Thompson notes that there are a number of reasons why we shouldn’t panic about the “death of the web,” including the fact that in many cases mobile usage is additive — that is, the size of the pie continues to grow. John Gruber, meanwhile, says the distinction between apps and the web is in some sense almost meaningless, since most apps (including Facebook’s) are just web content in a different wrapper. He also notes that WhatsApp, Instagram and other success stories could never have happened with just the web.

Thompson and Gruber are right on many of those points. But while Thompson says writing is still relatively open despite the trend toward apps, and that “the web is like water — it fills in all the gaps,” I am left wondering how much writing and other content creation is occurring now inside walled gardens that could be outside of them. Even the New York Times has said that it sees its future being driven primarily by multiple segregated apps for its content. Is that a good thing?

Dixon and Wilson aren’t the only ones who are concerned about this trend: although his focus isn’t necessarily on innovation per se, the web’s creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee has talked a number of times about his fear that the open web will be smothered by walled gardens or “closed worlds,” and proprietary services that make interaction difficult if not impossible. In a piece for Scientific American in 2010, he said that if this continued unchecked:

“We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want [and] the ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.”

Berners-Lee’s concern, not surprisingly, revolves around links — the whole purpose of the web being to link things together in interesting or relevant ways. How does that happen with apps? The answer is that it doesn’t. Even app makers whose entire business is content, like the New York Times, seem to include links begrudgingly, if at all. It may be imperceptible, but the loss of that kind of connection could have very real repercussions — and they likely won’t become obvious until it’s too late.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Shutterstock / noporn

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  1. Mobile apps are here to stay.

    But I don’t see native web innovation slowing down. This is an incredibly amazing time just for certain technologies like JavaScript. A lot of additions to the languages are coming. New frameworks and libraries are continuously coming out.

    JavaScript has been described as the assembly language for the web and I think that’s really accurate. Coffeescript, Clojurescript, Dart, etc all compile down to this base.

    There’s more than just JavaScript, but this is really what drives interactive sites on the web.

  2. Are these studies tracking web sites accessed *within* apps like Flipboard, Zite, Twitter, Facebook?

  3. “Berners-Lee’s concern, not surprisingly, revolves around links — the whole purpose of the web being to link things together in interesting or relevant ways. How does that happen with apps? The answer is that it doesn’t.”

    Wrong.

    The benefit of apps is that they can bundle information together and present it as a utility, in a personalized, and easily accessible package only a single icon press away. That information might otherwise be meaningless, inaccessible noise if it is either 1) raw on the web, or 2) has too big of a barrier to access (open browser, type in URL, login to website, deal with pinch and zoom, etc).

    Berners-Lee’s concern regarding links is being solved by via OAuth, REST APIs, and application-specific links (e.g., click on a YouTube link within an app and the YouTube app opens).

    The article is quite incomplete if the above comments are not considered.

    1. Pierre M Fiorini tom Saturday, April 12, 2014

      WRONG.

  4. Flurry’s data is a laughable source for this “faux” argument. Take away game apps, and people wouldnt know what to do with themselves while sitting on the bus or train.

  5. Horowitz is an idiot and thinks closing up a wide open ecosystem is going to appeal to everyone, well that wont happen and mobile will only swell for the emerging third world markets that want all the free shit everyone else does.

    That doesnt mean anyone will monetize it, now does it!

  6. Jerrod Crummel Thursday, April 10, 2014

    Meh. I’m more concerned about the Benzine you use in your products that could give us as consumers cancer. If that’s not bad enough think about all your factory workers suffering and dieing from exposure to Benzine(a product who’s use is outlawed in most all western countries) You should be a little more concerned with not being human garbage and less concerned about a couple of dollars. Your willingly killing people and dooming them to die a very slow and agonizing death and don’t even bat an eye. I’d never buy one of your computer because I hate the OS and how NOTHING is compatible, but now, I will definitely sell this iPhone I just bought. Or burn it. So yeah, good luck with that whole being one of the sources of the worlds worst problems. Douche bags.

  7. Frederick Tubiermont Tuesday, April 22, 2014

    We consider that, in the long run, native appstores are doomed. It will be the natural evolution. This will be the theme of our presentation at the Html5 dev conference on May 22 in San Francisco. You can already discover our main arguments right here: https://medium.com/mobile-culture/ce05dda53e7c
    We’ve been working for 16 months on a very ambitious mobile WEP app project, enabling anyone – even kids – to create mobile web apps in their browser. Nothing to download, no appstores involved. You can check out the work in progress on http://adsy.me (iOS/android on smartphones/tablets, Chrome/Safari on PC). You will see, it’s pretty impressive. It’s early days. Exciting times ahead!

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