The 2010 Wired story “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet,” is the starting point for a new Pew report entitled “The Future of Apps and Web.” The report focuses on the where information consumption and distribution in the digital era are going. The shift from an open Web to closed apps suggests capitalism at work: “The story of industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over control,” writes Chris Anderson. “A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others.” In the era of the Facebook IPO, and the potential of creating cross-platform HTML5 apps that can run anywhere, the all-app future might not be a far-off reality.
Estimates from Cisco suggest that, by 2016, there will be 10 billion Internet devices in use across the world. If the population indeed hits 7.3 billion, that means 1.4 devices per person. Smartphone traffic is expected to grow 50 times. Smartphone and tablet users download apps at a rapid rate; on March 3, Apple announced 25 billion app downloads, and in December 2011 Google’s Android Market hit 10 billion downloads. By June 2011, time spent on apps accounted for more than time on a desktop or the mobile Web. Increasingly, software innovators are developing for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, shifting focus away from development of full-size personal computers.
The peer production Web is a space where users are free to make and share what they want without the oversight of control or moderation. Think of loosely defined social networks like Gifpumper.com, which serve as more of a virtual collaborative creation space, one that in no way attempts to reap profit from its users.
So where does this leave the always-on, hyperconnected user who most likely switches back and forth between three screens – the laptop, smartphone and tablet? Smack dab in the middle. The Pew study reports that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed connect to the Web via a smartphone, tablet and laptop computer. And alternating between these three glass screens is mostly easily done through apps, which offer simple, one-touch or click moves.
Pew’s survey questions looked less for stats and more for general responses. A total 59% agreed that apps accessed through smartphones and tablets would “be useful as specialized options for a finite number of information and entertainment functions.” These participants still believed that the Web was more important and useful than mere apps. Only 35% of participants thought the opposite, which is that apps are preferable, and even superior to, the open Web.
Experts Agree with the Majority: Long Live the Web!
Apps signify a type of control, a way to possibly harness the Internet forest where the high-tech hunter-gatherer wanders. Yet like the battle between man and nature, nature will ultimately win. Man complies, yet still tries to build better, faster, stronger. Experts see the value of apps, yet default to the future of the wide-open Web.
Says Allison Mankin, a computer-networking expert formerly with the National Science Foundation: “Economic forces and our tendency to prefer smaller pictures lead to a view that there will be consolidation and apps will dominate, but in the big picture, I cannot see the highly diverse, millions to billions of destinations going away,” says Mankin. “The ability of the Net to accommodate unlimited diversity will continue and therefore there will be an open Web, never fully open because there are many competing forces, but diversified and fast-moving, as a reflection of human society’s restless character.”
But the walled garden is alluring in its offering of control – and users spend much of their time interacting within confined spaces. Jerry Michalski, founder of Relationship Economy Expedition and consultant at the Institute for the Future, says that the “…gated bubble worlds formed by app markets, Facebook, and other private spaces will bloom and fade, while people will keep gathering in open spaces.”
Convergence in the World of HTML5
As we have seen from the Facebook shift to HTML5, Web architects are looking to build cross-platform, browser-accessible Web apps rather than browser-specific or native apps. Does this signify an openness within the closed app world?
“Once HTML5 browsers and fully capable Web runtimes are in place on the common Kindle through iPhone, the Web app will begin replacing native apps,” says Rob Scott, chief technology officer for Nokia. But how will users understand this?
Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, notes that the challenge will come with helping consumers think about the implications of HTML5-based apps as a part of the Web. How will app users perceive their experience? As part of the interconnected Web, or behind the wall of an app? These are important questions to consider, says Samuel. Can the Web and the app become one in the same? And will the browser-based Web stand a chance?
The general misunderstanding of what it means to be on the open Web, not closed within a social network asserts a sort of freedom that many conflate with the supposed freedom of social networks like Facebook. Says York University’s Director of Communications, David Ellis: “I have to admit the ‘open’ Web is certainly changing – just ask the 750 million people on the anti-Web, also known as Facebook.”