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

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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.

12 Responses to “Is the web dying, killed off by mobile apps? It’s complicated”

  1. The first commentator that recognises the premise of the original posting in wired from 2010.

    Your last sentence is where the article gets to the point, yet it stops there.

    The free and open web is under threat from the natural tendencies of capitalism to accumulate power. The accumulation of power weakens the competitors until there is a monopoly or oligopoly. It’s all in the original article.

    Too often writers concentrate on the technology, which is slave to the strategies and tactics of the dominant players in media-as-data. Mobile apps are just one way, previous dominance was maintained by using non standard browser features.

    The W3C tries to level the playing field with standards.

    What is also needed is education about the real issues. Who does control your data?

  2. A successful mobile app must consist of a very unique service that is attractive and provide value to a lot of mobile users across the Globe or otherwise known as a “mush have” apps for mobile users. We are looking on a small percentage of mobile apps which fit such a category like FaceBook, Tweeter, YouTube and etc.; which makes up the list of the Giant Corporations because of their unique mobile apps platform that gained popularity. The other 92% are typically “Spin-off “and “Me-Too” apps that makes up the millions of mobile apps out there. Some of those apps in my opinion are just out right junk; except for those corporate mobile apps that geared toward their specific community users which are often a small group. I personally do not know of any one person who choke up their mobile device will all the apps they can find; while exposing critical information to some of those mobile apps bandits. It is much safer and easier for me to visit their web sites before thinking of install a mobile app on my smart phone and I am sure a lot of people do the same. So, the bottom line is the web is NOT dying. What is dying is the legacy web apps with a back-end that‘s not mobile friendly.

  3. Graham Downs

    I love native phone apps! I wish it would happen on the desktop as well, but it seems to be going in the other direction, there.

    I have a deep, deep dislike for “web apps”, and in general will install a dedicated, task specific, desktop app whenever possible, rather than relying on them. I should NOT need to open a freaking web browser to edit a document! Web browsers are for BROWSING the web, which is a text-based medium (although I’ll accept that images have become a part of it, I will go so far as to say that even THEY are beyond the scope for which the web was designed).

  4. One reason I think more people use apps is corporate firewalls. You can still access facebook or twitter on your phone, through your own mobile internet connection, which isn’t affected by the corporate firewall.

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  6. Frank Hodgkiss

    Isn’t it more that there is a cross over point where one interface is more appropriate than the other. For example if you are running a distributed document management system this is not so good for an app since file sizes and what you can then do with them are severely limited on an app. In relation to media something like Spotify is brilliant on the go but far easier to manage on the web. This goes along with your assertion that it is an increasing pie with Web and Apps consisting of different parts.

    Certainly this has been my experience with the work we do that has both websites and apps as integral parts to our pie.

  7. Scott Lewis

    Maybe. But the reality today is that even when you are building a website you are just building an app on html5 and JavaScript – the most difficult way to do it. Putting up a simple news site is a complex dance, but a simple rss-based iOS app is easy for same functionality. No hacking fear on server etc etc. What you have written here is not a good analysis. You need to go deeper.