The Web—that thin facade of readable design elements on top of the machine gibberish that constitutes the Internet—is fading. And the way it’s slowing being replaced has far reaching implications, more-so than anything else in technology today.
Think about your mobile phone. All those little buttons on your screen are apps, not websites, and they work in ways that are fundamentally different from the way the World Wide Web works.
An accumulation of data tell us that we are spending time on apps that we once spent surfing the Web. We’re fascinated with apps, and they’ve taken over. On mobile devices, more than 80% of our time is spent on apps, and less than 20% is spent on the Web!
This is quite a change. Back in the day we printed out travel directions from MapQuest and with one wrong turn we would be lost. Today we open up an app on our phones and are routed around traffic in real time. This is nothing short of a miracle.
Everything about apps is very efficient and convenient for users. Apps are faster and easier to use than going through, what feels like the long way, the Web. Behind the convenience factor, there is the end of the openness that allowed Internet companies to grow into some of the most powerful companies of the century.
As a example, let’s look at e-commerce and accepting credit cards. When Amazon.com made its debut, it had to pay a small percentage in transaction fees. Apple takes 30% of every transaction conducted within an app sold through its app store! App stores are locked to particular operating systems and devices, where Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are the gatekeepers. Apple regulates apps that compete with its own software and services.
The Web was invented by academics who had the goal of sharing information in mind. Unlike with app stores, there was no drive to control the early Web. Standards arose for programming languages. Businesses that would have liked to wipe the competition other off the map were forced, by the very nature of the Web, to come together and agree on revisions to the common language for Web pages and sites.
The result was that anyone could put up a Web site or launch a new service, and it was accessible to everyone. Google was born in a garage. Facebook was born in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room. App stores, however don’t work that way. The list of most downloaded apps is the main driver of consumer adoption. The search feature on app stores is broken.
The Web was created to expose and share information. It was so intent on sharing that it didn’t include any way to pay for information (something some of its early creators regret to this day, since it forced the Web to survive on advertising).
The Web became the avenue for exchange of information and, therefore, businesses had to design technologies that were compatible with competitors’ technologies. Microsoft’s Web browser had to faithfully render Apple’s website or else it would risk consumers finding an alternative browser like Firefox or Chrome, which has since taken over.
Today, apps are taking over and the Web isn’t the first priority. The process of creating new Web standards has slowed to a crawl. Meanwhile, businesses with app stores are devoted to making those stores better than and purposely incompatible with app stores built by competitors.
The dominance of apps is becoming the natural state for software. Businesses are trying to use their market power to shut out competition, even when it’s not the way to go for innovation and the consumer. This doesn’t mean the Web will die. Facebook and Google still rely on it to supply a steady stream of content that can be accessed from within their apps. But even the Web of news items could disappear. Facebook plans to host publishers’ work on Facebook itself, leaving the Web nothing but a curiosity.
The Web might have been a historical accident, the birth of a powerful new technology going steadily from a publicly funded research lab to the public. It’s not that today’s top app companies want to suppress innovation. It’s that in the transition to a realm where services are delivered through apps, rather than the Web, we are adjusting to a system that makes innovation and experimentation that much harder for those who build things that rely on the Web.