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Are App Stores and Social Media Strangling the Web?

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Is the Internet getting narrower, or am I just gaining weight? The rise of social networks and app stores have some web enthusiasts worried that the lush, open wilderness that made the Internet great is being paved over to give us an easier but more limited experience. Our proactive searching of limitless sites is being replaced by a more passive reading of preselected menus.

“The use of apps on mobile devices is, at least for now, becoming the dominant form of content discovery and use on the mobile web,” Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures (a Twitter investor) told the New York Times last week in a discussion about Google’s biggest threats. “If you want a sports score on your iPhone, you are less likely to go to Google and more likely to fire up your ESPN app.”

That pattern will likely continue to the TV, where personalized web apps will increasingly serve up your favorite content in icons you can click with your remote, sparing you the work of searching QWERTY-ily through the Internet’s haystacks.

“The rise of the ‘app store mentality’ is a direct attack on the web,” Chris Messina, consultant and founder of the Flock browser, said in a recent blog post predicting “the death of the URL.”

Facebook is contributing to this trend, circumventing search by using friends and personal data to push tailored content to passive consumers. Defenders of the searchable web even get nervous about the way Facebook sometimes warns of security risks when users follow links that lead beyond its walls. And it’s true that Facebook is pushing an alternative to Googley search; it probably would prefer Facebook pages to replace web pages. But it doesn’t really want to try to keep you within its walls; it wants to follow you as you roam. In fact, that is its “one chance of building a monetization engine,” as Om put it — the spread of Facebook Connect across a sprawling Internet, retrieving information wherever it goes. Does that enhancement make Connect sites so much more preferable to others that users will be discouraged from straying elsewhere? Maybe, but it’s also in Facebook’s interest for people to keep wandering, too – feeding more new content into its discovery engine and fostering the spread of Connect to new places.

That brings me to an important reason not to fear for the future of the open web. Businesses that run on eyeballs are more scared than you are about their offerings being too narrow, and they are dependent on the Internet’s wilderness to grow new things and on your ability to find it. CBS, for example, is so envious of the world beyond its walled garden that it is creating a TV show based on a ranting kid’s Twitter feed called “Sh*t My Dad Says.” It’s hard to complain about the web being too restrictive with some random tweeter’s dad saying sh*t on TV.

Sure, there are tradeoffs in this shift toward a NewNet. We may well exchange some measure of freedom and control for greater simplicity, security and functionality. And a few elbows will be thrown in competition: Twitter will try to weaken FriendFeed; Apple will reject Google Voice, and IPTV providers may favor their own content. But we’re also getting a lot in exchange. Having 100,000 web apps in your pocket wherever you go is a huge expansion, not a contraction, of the Internet experience. And the app store model is bringing a competitive market of web innovations to new devices all the time: Roku has an app store for its set-top box, and LiveScribe even has an app store for its audio-recording pen. Just try to improve your pen using search.

As for web apps killing URLs, a similar argument could have been made years ago about Favorites bars on browsers: their convenience probably discourages us from wandering to new places. I don’t mind. Do you?

Question of the week

Do app stores and social media sacrifice too much of the web’s freedom?