For a while now I have wanted to write a piece on the relationship between the Web as we know it and the fast-growing app-economy which is mostly pushed by the Apple app store and the iPhone/iPad. Now that Wired has announced the death of the Web yesterday, I’d like to add my own two cents to the array of comments that have already been written.
Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired and author of the much noted books The Long Tail and Free has published a short article entitled The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet yesterday. In the ensuing debate with Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle, the points he wanted to make become clearer – and qualified by his contestors.
Yet another distinction?
Before reading the piece, I haven’t put much though into distinguishing between the words Web and Internet. In Anderson’s sense, Internet is the umbrella term for every bit of hard- and software that forms the global information network all of us spend a great deal of their time with. Web, on the other hand, refers to the world of browser-based, http-port80-style access of HTML pages. Following this logic, the Wired.com website belongs to the Web, however, the Wired iPad app does not; yet, both are parts of the Internet. Thus, the only reason to draw this distinction is to be able to terminologically locate the concept of Apps: They are different from the Web, but they still belong to the Internet.
Anderson’s argument is based on a diagram which allegedly supports his claim but actually only proves one thing, as BoingBoing has pointed out in Is the web really dead?: video generates a lot of traffic. Thanks for letting everybody know Mr. Anderson!
The bottom line
Apart from all the hype (after all, Wired is in the publishing business, who would complain about a little attention?) and the over-exaggeration, there is of course some truth to the story. Applications on mobile devices have a considerable impact on the way in which we interact with the online medium, there’s no doubt about that. Every time I use the Twitter app on my iPhone, I’m by definition not using the web interface by letting a browser decode the HTML of the Twitter website and present its information to me. The Twitter app makes use of machine-to-machine communication instead and pulls out all the necessary info out of the Twitter API.
A short history of mobile apps
One day before the iPhone was launched on July 11th, 2008, the Apple App Store came to live and is now the key factor for the success of Apple’s mobile devices, be it iPod, iPhone or the recent iPad. Each of these devices can directly connect to this app marketplace and download one of the more than 200,000 third-party apps that are on there. Within the two years of its existence, the App store has seen more than 5 billion app downloads to date.
Other manufacturers of mobile devices have started similar services in the past, as can be gathered from the List of digital distribution platforms for mobile devices on Wikipedia. According to this overview, the Android marketplace for example was launched in late October 2008, has about 105,000 apps and 1 billion downloads to date; RIM have started their App World in April 2009, featuring about 7,500 apps and about 1 million downloads per day.
In short: the possibility of increasing the capabilities of one’s mobile device by means of third-party apps exists for only about 2 years. In this short time-span, the app concept has proved to be a viable business model, which I will talk about in the next paragraph.
First of all, apps make users do what content providers love: they make them pay for content. A nice example of this is the Wired iPad app, which presents the magazine in a very modern, multi-media and, well, magazine-like environment. Rather than clicking through a website, readers can flick through the pages like they would with the paper counterpart. Or, as Anderson sees it:
Apps, for us, are just a way to put our best foot forward, to package text, images, video, interactivity in a designed package that can engage people for an hour, not a minute. It’s early days yet, but we’re already seeing an order of magnitude difference in iPad app session times compared to the same content on the Web.
Secondly, the degree of standardisation – one could also term it closedness – of the Apple app store for instance makes it easier for developers and publishers to forecast what the program output will look and behave like. In other words, there is no need to worry about different operating systems, web browsers or screen resolutions. Of course, opponents of Apple’s walled garden approach criticise exactly that: if functions aren’t allowed by the Apple SDK or the Apple approval guidelines, they don’t make their way into the App store. In my opinion, however, it does not take more than a short discussion with a modern webdesigner who has to fight with browser backward compatibility issues (just ask his or her opinion on the IE6 madness!) on an everyday basis to realise that the freedom the web offers sometimes is not the perfect solution. Users of Apple’s mobile devices are eager to keep their systems updated, so backward compatibility simply is not an issue here – making life yet easier for app developers.
Thirdly – and this ties in with the first point – app users are willing to pay for good applications that make their lifes easier or are just plain funny. And because app store accounts are tied to the customers’ payment data, the purchase process is as easy as it could be. On the web, there is still no generally accepted form of micropayment. In Apple’s app store, in contrast, the purchase of a 1$ app is just an uncomplicated click away.
What about the Web, then?
Of course the Web is thriving, the browser is the single-most important means of accessing its wealth of information. Even though it seems that everybody is using iPhones, iPads and Blackberrys and is always online thanks to mobile data flatrates these days, this is simply not the case. The majority of people are using their desktop PCs to access websites and their mobile phone to make calls. Period. Nonetheless, the app universe keeps growing and provides very interesting business opportunities. In some cases, apps simply do a way better job than HTML ever could.