Is the web dying, killed off by mobile apps? It’s complicated

As more and more apps become multibillion-dollar businesses — from WhatsApp and Instagram to SnapChat and Slack — it’s tempting to see them as replacing the web, or taking over from it. This helps explain the periodic outbreak of articles about how “the web is dying,” like the one Christopher Mims wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. But the truth is that, as is often the case when someone says a certain kind of behavior is dying, it’s a lot more complicated than such headlines suggest.

In his piece, Mims repeats many of the same arguments we’ve heard before about how apps have come to dominate our activity as mobile usage has grown. Instead of using web browsers, we go to task-specific apps, and these are in many cases “walled gardens” that benefit a single corporation and don’t play well with others — either in terms of the data they collect or in terms of links to other sites:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Everything about apps feels like a win for users — they are faster and easier to use than what came before. But underneath all that convenience is something sinister: the end of the very openness that allowed Internet companies to grow into some of the most powerful or important companies of the 21st century.”[/blockquote]

The “web is dying” meme has been around since at least 2010, when Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson wrote a feature entitled The Web is Dead: Long Live the Internet, which talked about the rise of apps for services like Facebook, Twitter, Pandora and Netflix. It warned about the move from “the wide-open Web to semi-closed platforms” and called the web “an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants.”

The web pie is growing

There were a number of problems with the Wired story, however — including the fact that the chart it used contrasted the growth of video traffic with the decline of “web” traffic, even though most of that video traffic was coming from websites and web-based services like YouTube, Hulu and Netflix. But the phenomenon it was describing was definitely a real thing, and in fact has only accelerated with the growth of apps like Instagram and WhatsApp, which don’t even have traditional websites.

As Zach Seward at Quartz notes, the Mims piece makes a common mistake by implying that the size of the web pie is finite — in other words, that mobile apps are stealing market share or user attention from the open web or the traditional browser, and therefore the web is dying. But the size of the web pie is arguably still growing rapidly, which suggests that apps are stealing attention from other things, including various kinds of offline activity.

Also, a number of people — including tech analyst Ben Thompson — have pointed out that a huge proportion of the time spent with mobile apps is devoted either to games or to various forms of instant messaging. Since neither of those things has ever relied that much on the web (or at least on the desktop browser), they aren’t really a conclusive sign that the web is being killed off by apps. As Thompson put it in a guest post at WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg’s blog earlier this year:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”The more interesting juxtaposition raised by Flurry’s numbers is not apps versus web, but games and social versus everything else. YouTube and other entertainment apps form a solid percentage of what is left (8%), but the remainder is a mishmash of utilities, productivity, the aforementioned news, and, of course the web.”[/blockquote]

But one of the biggest flaws with the “web is dying” argument is that it assumes that apps themselves don’t drive more traffic to the open web — which they clearly do. Social-networking apps like Twitter and Facebook in particular, which consume a huge proportion of the mobile app time of many users, are at least in part about sharing links to content, and while many of these apps open links in their own in-app browsers, that still counts as web traffic.

The rise of silos

One of the concerns that Mims mentions, which Wired also hinted at in its cover story, is that the rise of apps is dangerous because they are “walled gardens” both in design and philosophy, and therefore they are a potential threat to the open web. The web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee raised similar concerns in a piece he wrote for Scientific American in 2010, in which he described the web as being “critical to free speech” and a civil society.

That said, it’s worth pointing out that Lee’s criticisms — which are very valid — weren’t about apps per se, but about the desire on the part of companies like Apple and Facebook to control both the experience on their platforms and access to the data that they collect from users. This isn’t something specific to apps: Facebook behaves exactly the same way on its website. The app is just another way of accomplishing the same goal.

As I tried to point out in a response to the Wired piece four years ago, apps make sense for certain kinds of behavior, and likely always will — whether it’s games, chat-style discussion, sharing photos, or searching for maps and directions. In many ways, the desktop browser-based web was never really much good for those things anyway. But that doesn’t mean the web is dead, or dying. As Thompson put it:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”There is no question that apps are here to stay, and are a superior interaction model for some uses. But the web is like water: it fills in all the gaps between things like gaming and social with exactly what any one particular user wants.”[/blockquote]

I’m certainly not arguing with the idea that the open web needs defending, or that we should be aware of the efforts of large corporations to force increasing amounts of activity and content into their silos — that is definitely an issue with Facebook in particular, and with others. But to blame all of that on apps is short-sighted, I think. Apps are just a symptom.