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Apps vs. the web: Are they enemies or allies?

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George Colony, the chairman and CEO of Forrester Research, re-ignited a minor firestorm recently, with a presentation at the LeWeb conference in which he argued that the web is dead, and being replaced by the app economy — with mobile and smartphone apps that leverage the cloud or other services rather than the open web. That sparked some strong responses from longtime open-web advocates such as RSS pioneer Dave Winer, who argued that apps are not the future, and others who compared them to the “interactive” CD-ROMS of the 1990s. Do apps necessarily mean the death of the web, and if so doesn’t that mean we are losing something important?

Colony (whose presentation is here and slides are here) argued that the “app Internet” is the future in part because of the continuing increase in computing power — both in the cloud, where giant server farms store and process our data, and in the devices we hold in our hands (in the 1990s, according to Forrester, the iPad2 would have been one of the most powerful computers in the world). But bandwidth hasn’t kept up with these changes, said Colony, and therefore the web as we know it has to give way to a world of apps that process and display the data coming from services in the cloud.

Closed systems are great if you own the platform

This may sound like a great world if you are an app developer — or if you are a key part of the app economy the way that Apple (s aapl) and other platform providers such as Facebook and Google (s goog) are. Apps are useful because they allow you to control the experience your users have down to the tiniest detail, and also because they give you a channel with which to offer them things they might pay for, whether that’s the app itself or the content or service you get through it (games, reviews, newspaper content, etc.). If you are Facebook, you get a direct channel to the players of those Zynga games or the social-reading apps that media companies have launched.

But not everyone thinks this is a great world to live in: Winer, for example, says this app ecosystem is like a series of disconnected silos of information — silos that work only with a specific service or platform, and that in many cases can’t even link to other apps or to content outside their own silo. As Winer put it:

[I]f I can’t link in and out of your world, it’s not even close to a replacement for the web. It would be as silly as saying that you don’t need oceans because you have a bathtub. How nice your bathtub is. Try building a continent around it.

Web veteran John Battelle of Federated Media made a similar argument in his response to Colony, saying the app ecosystem has benefits, but that it still doesn’t offer most of the things that he associates with the open web — and if the “app Internet” replaces the web but doesn’t develop those features, then as far as he is concerned the web might as well be dead. Like Winer, the Federated Media founder said that the most important of those features is the fact that the web is based on open standards, so websites can easily interoperate and exchange data. Apps, by contrast, are walled gardens that can only talk to each other if the platform owner allows it.

Is the web dead, or is it just evolving?

As Winer noted in his post, this theme has come up before — and will likely come up again. The last time it reared its head was last year, when Wired magazine ran a cover story arguing that the “web is dead” and the app economy is taking over (although it used a somewhat misleading graph of web traffic to make this argument). Among the responses to the issues raised in the story was one from the web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who argued that this trend was something fundamentally negative, since it gave platform companies like Apple and Google control over their walled gardens in a way that was bad for the internet as a whole and likely for society as well.

As some have pointed out, to a certain extent the debate over the web vs. the app ecosystem is a debate over terminology. After all, many apps are simply dedicated web browsers that use web-based standards and technologies to display and manage data — and there’s no question that some apps do this in a way that adds a lot of value for users. Games, for example, can do much more within a native app than they could with HTML5, and so can apps that use a device’s camera or other built-in features — such as Path, which is one of the most beautifully designed apps I’ve ever used.

Some, including startup advisor and investor Dave McClure of 500Startups, say there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between apps and the web, and that apps which can link and exchange information across different services or devices are possible — even if there aren’t many of them right now. Apps don’t have to be walled garden-style silos like the CD-ROMs of the late 1990s, as Scott Hanselman referred to them in a post responding to Colony’s presentation. Social-web consultant Stowe Boyd argues that we need a different paradigm that goes beyond either the browser-based web or the simple nature of apps, and that the app ecosystem we have now is (or should be) just a transition phase.

Ideally, we will wind up with a world that combines the best of apps and the best features of the web — the openness, the lack of proprietary standards and gatekeeper-style platform owners. Perhaps somewhere out there, startup founders and developers are working on just that kind of solution. Like Battelle and Winer, I hope we can get there.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jason L. Parks and Fabio Venni

22 Responses to “Apps vs. the web: Are they enemies or allies?”

  1. Sri Ramanathan

    The mobile web versus application debate has many of us in the industry thrilled about the deeper thought and discussion being stimulated around mobile proliferation and the future of both business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-employee (B2E) interactions. I work for Kony, a mobile platform provider, and we believe that while HTML5 is certainly transforming the mobile landscape, Hybrid (or Mixed Mode) applications that use the features of both native and mobile web provide the most seamless, engaging applications. For example, while HTML5 offers enhanced animations and transitions, native continues to provide the performance-oriented features that users have come to expect. This further highlights why Hybrid apps are able to bring together the benefits of both, while never compromising the user experience. This is in alignment with Dave McClure’s perspective, that there does not have to be a dichotomy, and that apps which can link and exchange information across different services or devices are possible. This is why we suggest that organizations build their apps from a single code base. With a common API, developers can specify once and then translate an application into multiple native platforms- there’s no need to manually generate an application such as Google Wallet for 9,000 devices, 7 operating systems and 15 browsers.

    -Sri Ramanathan

  2. his Holeyness

    The winning technology will be the one with the porn. The loser will be BetaMax. As long as an app has to be “approved” by the apps store “quality control,” the web doesn’t have to be technologically better to win out in the end. There’s an 800 pound gorilla mounting the elephant in the room, and no amount of loyalty to a process will trump getting your freak on in the palm of your hand.

  3. Shane Dickson

    I think a mistake that a lot of people make is trying to apply the decades-old debate about browser-based vs “fat” desktop applications to the mobile space. A smartphone, no matter how some might want it to be, isn’t a desktop. Even with HTML5, most browser-based web apps can’t match a comparable native app. I don’t just pull these conclusions out of thin air. I’m an avid consumer and user of both web and native apps for smartphones, as well as an experienced developer. What strikes me as odd is that some people forget that, initially, when the iPhone first came out, Apple would only allow web development. They had their reasons, but eventually, due to a huge demand for something better, they relented, and allowed native app development. As a developer, I have written HTML5 apps, hybrid apps(native apps that wrap HTML content), and have come away with the opinion that native apps win out most of the time. Of course, one should use the tool that fits the task at hand. I am often reminded of this saying when these debates start to gain momentum: “When all one has is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”

  4. Hi Mathew,

    One big piece of the app user experience puzzle also deals with getting the actual bytes to the devices — freely (or with very low cost) to the end user. Currently, the best way to provide free byte delivery to an end user is to “pre-load” the bandwidth into the app itself (just like merchants package free delivery with other goods and services, or like a1-800 voice call). The process of embedding free bandwidth into an app is called “FreeBand” (see Since bandwidth is arguably the biggest cost associated with a user’s online experience (certainly for mobile), apps that come with free delivery will have a big advantage over traditional web pages (with standard browsers the end user pays for byte delivery out of their own pocket). So in terms of lowering and controlling bandwidth cost to the end user (especially in an ever increasing “data capped” world), I would give the advantage to apps.

  5. sflaherty

    I agree largely with Benny. HTML5 will essentially take over. Right now apps are an extremely valuable way to interact with users because the platforms are so disparate. That will ultimately change with HTML5. Give it a few years.