Blog Post

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

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 (s aapl). 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 (s goog) 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 (s yhoo) or AOL (s 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 (s csc0)). 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

37 Responses to “The Web Isn't Dead; It's Just Continuing to Evolve”

  1. He must be dreaming when he says that the web is dead. He should go out of his shell more often and see what the real world is doing. The apps thing is short lived as it is paid. A lot of people want a free one and that is the web. Wait till you see developers make a free for all apps.

  2. Bob in L.A.

    Neither Anderson or Ingram have touched upon a fundamental motivation for “apps”: the limitations of the mobile network environment. Apps are nothing but thick (or at least, less thin) clients. They tend to be more bandwidth efficient and can sometimes be made less sensitive to RTT latency. Intelligent clients lessen the pain inherent in traversing the crappy mobile network. Less pain = higher user adoption rates.

    Apps that receive push transmissions, or which perform autonomous periodic downloads in anticipation of the user, go the extra mile to mask the mobile latency issue. (E.g. it’s a LOT more pleasant to use one of the Handmark mobile phone news apps than to access the AP or Reuters web site via the mobile browser)

    For the record, one of the fundamental reasons that HTTP became so central to the PC experience was also the desire to minimize pain (and thus foster user adoption). HTTP was the sure-thing protocol to use when trying to reach a PC. Most corporate fire walls would pass HTTP. Most home NAT firewalls could handle it too. Everyone tried to shoe-horn their application on top of http. As browsers became more competent (commonly sporting adjuncts such as javascript and flash), many businesses tried to dispense with any software what so ever on the PC. (Why develop and debug PC software if you can avoid it by just using the browser!)

    The Internet ecosystem isn’t as complicated as all these fan-boy magazines make it out to be. Most of the time, its just greed. Entrepreneurs pick techniques that they think will maximize the penetration rate and up-take of their fabulous product. (They want to get rich quick: greed.) To help foster the up-take of their schemes, they feed a symbiotic ecosystem of breathless, shouting-headline fan-boy tech journals and blogs. Add to this the near-astroturf fake viral marketing that occurs on supposedly user-to-user communications platforms. As soon as any new communication venue shows up (Facebook, Twitter) a cottage industry of “how to market to XYZ” follows right behind it. Auto-follow bots on Twitter, slimy corporate marketing staff who post their crap to Facebook (both private and corporate-sponsored accounts).

    If we’re looking for something to bemoan, how about the cesspool of lies and deceit that is Internet marketing. Some of the crap that corporations spew onto Twitter isn’t much better than a 419 scheme or Telco DSL-dereg astroturfing.

  3. I think one of the main reasons that apps have become so prevalent is that phones make pretty poor web browsing environments. On my desktop or laptop I have lots more screen real estate, tabs, a bookmark menu, and a keyboard. On my phone it’s a much more arduous process to open a browser, enter a website address, and in many cases use a website that’s not optimized for the screen size.

    Bringing up the list of apps and tapping on one (or selecting it from the current apps list) is so much easier. Browsing on a phone is a bit like browsing on a PC ten years ago and we weren’t really ready for the web app environment back then.

    Even though so much has been moving to the web, my browser is just one of maybe a dozen applications that I use on my PC every day. So I don’t think the “ecosystem of discrete applications” ever went away in the first place.

  4. So does this suggest that Adobe Air may have a bigger future than it at first appears, or is the app economy just the natural extension of web use moving to mobile (smaller) devices over time? The mobile experience is better via a curated and restrained application that the 50-60 tab browser windows of the desktops.

  5. Chris Smith

    The wired story is total BS. The average web page generates 300 KB of traffic while the average video generates 3MB. So if people viewed 100 web pages and 100 videos, then web traffic would be 30 MB while video traffic would be 300 MB. If you took percentages then web would be less than 10% of traffic.

    Yes, video traffic is increasing. But if you measured clicks or transactions for web and video, you would see that video is still far behind.

    Then there are video ads that are embedded within web pages. Do you think that skews the data?

    The point is those statistics are not indicative of change in users’ habits.

  6. Hamranhansenhansen

    Two major problems in this Wired article:

    1) apps are not new, we had them on the Internet before the Web, i.e. email, FTP, gopher

    2) the Web is not just another application of the Internet, it’s a meta-application that ties all the other apps together.

    Before the Web, you had a mail app, an FTP app, a gopher app, Archie app, and so on. But we still needed the Web because apps were hard to discover and hard to use without it, same as iPhone apps would be if the Web did not exist. Try discovering new apps in iTunes, it will make you want to read a review on the Web, or see a video of the app being used on the Web, or join a discussion on the Web about that app with people who have actually used it. There was no common space that united the whole Internet until the Web, which is why it did not take off in popularity until the Web came along.

    At first, the Web was seen as a peer to mail and FTP and gopher and Archie and so on, but as Tim Berners-Lee intended, the Web turned out to be a meta-application that tied all those other applications together. So, for example, even if your only purpose is file sharing, you put up an FTP server and a Web server so people can discover the FTP server, and even access it without a dedicated FTP app. Even if your only purpose is mail, you put up a mail server and a Web server, so people can discover the mail server, and even access it without a dedicated mail app. Every iPhone app has a website, but every website does not have an iPhone app.

    An analogy would be that apps are like buildings, but the Web is the public space outside, the way that you get from building to building. Another would be that apps are like TV channels, but the Web is the TV guide.

    So all that has happened is the number of apps on the Internet has gone from a handful before the Web in 1989, to many hundreds of thousands 20 years after the Web in 2010. That is not something bad to say about the Web, that is an enormous victory for the Web.

    So the Wired issue could have celebrated that 20 years of the Web has brought us a much richer selection of apps. Or celebrated that iPhone apps and the Web itself were all written with the same set of developer tools, which is now known as Xcode. Or wondered what the next 20 years will bring.

    • Great points. But I think the author describes the death of a specific web experience – one that revolves around websites browsing! Perhaps he should have used a different terminology but I could not agree more with his opinion. Today apps are taking us beyong and far away from websites. In that regards, the guy is right. Of course I have a website for the iPhone app I’m selling. But it’s just an entry door. The users would see it once, watch the demo, download or not the app and bye-bye. After that, it’s all about the app. 5 years ago, I would have had them sticking to my website and using my web services. That is a big change. Plus, it’s more obvious to make cash with apps if you sell content.

  7. I would like to see the same chart with absolute values rather than %age. Video is much heavier with bandwidth requirements so increased video is going to mean a larger percentage with apparent shrinkage of other protocols. This doesn’t mean the browser is dead.

  8. As you aptly point out, many applications utilize common web protocols. The question remains, does the web require a browser to be the web. My answer has been no. But, long live the inter-tubes, because that is what matters.