The Web Isn't Dead; It's Just Continuing to Evolve

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Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and the author of such books as “Free” and “The Long Tail,” has written a piece for the magazine with the provocative — make that inflammatory — headline: “The Web Is Dead: Long Live the Internet.” His point seems to be that the web as we have come to know it is going away, to be replaced by an ecosystem of discrete applications for specific purposes, many of which are based on proprietary platforms such as the iPhone and the iPad. To which we are tempted to respond: “Hey Chris, welcome to 2010. Nice of you to join us.”

As with some of his other popular writings, Anderson seems to be coming to this realization rather late in the game, and has resorted to a sensationalized headline to grab some attention. We at GigaOM (and plenty of others who cover the web and technology space) have been writing and talking about the rise of the app economy — and particularly the rise of mobile apps thanks to the iPhone, as well as the iPad and Google’s Android platform — for more than two years now. As Om has pointed out on a number of occasions, the success of Apple’s iPhone and application store has accelerated the evolution of the web from a free-for-all to a selection of specific apps for specific needs.

Om’s favorite comparison is to the real world of home appliances: we don’t just have a single all-purpose appliance — instead, we have toasters and coffee-makers and can-openers and other devices that perform specific tasks. So, too, we now have applications for maps, applications for photos, applications for reading books, and apps for video and location-based “check ins” and dozens of other things. That doesn’t mean the web is dead; it means that the web, and the way we use it, is evolving. Instead of wandering around on the web looking for interesting websites by using services such as Yahoo or AOL, we’re using task-specific devices in a sense.

Anderson is right in a technical sense when he says that the web is “just one of many applications that exist on the Internet, which uses the IP and TCP protocols to move packets around.” But he also gets it wrong when he conflates the demise of the web browser with the demise of the web itself. Plenty of applications are using web technologies such as HTTP and REST, just as web browsers do. In a sense, they’re like mini-browsers for discrete applications, and although it’s almost a footnote in the Wired piece, HTML5 has the potential to allow developers to create (as some already have) websites that look and feel and function exactly like apps do. (For more on that, read our recent GigaOM Pro piece on the potential of HTML5.) Where does that fit in the “web is dead” paradigm?

It’s also worth noting (as others have as well) that the chart Wired uses with its story is misleading, or at least the way it’s being portrayed is misleading. (It also has the wrong dates, according to TechCrunch.) It shows the amount of total U.S. Internet traffic that different types of content have accounted for over the last decade (as calculated by Cisco). At the far right-hand side of the graph, video is seen as making up a large proportion of that traffic, while something called “the web” makes up a much smaller proportion than it did in 1995. But this does little to prove Anderson’s thesis, since the bulk of video is still viewed using websites such as YouTube and Hulu — and the fact that we have a lot more video traffic than we used to isn’t exactly a revelation.

The bottom line is that the Wired article simultaneously repeats an obvious point — that we’re using more and more apps instead of pointing a browser at a website — and misses an equally obvious point, which is that this evolution has nothing to do with the web being “dead,” or even sickly. The web is healthier than ever. If nothing else, the dramatic growth of Facebook, which most people interact with through their web browser, should help to cement that idea. We may be using specific apps to access specific web-based services, and we may be making less use of all-in-one browsers like Firefox or Safari, but that has little or nothing to do with the web being dead.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Are App Stores and Social Media Strangling the Web?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Dooley

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