By now I’m sure that just about everyone who’s interested in such matters has read – or at least heard a bit about – Chris Anderson’s latest treatise, the one where he declares “The Web is Dead.” In it Anderson makes the case that web-browsing is becoming anachronistic as more people begin using apps in one of a variety of touch-pad environments.
I get what Anderson is saying, but I think he’s making the rhetorical error of believing that there’s a true cultural shift happening because he sees app environments and developments make headlines and this is the experience he has with his friends and coworkers, most of whom are high-tech early adopters. You may recognize this thinking as being similar to that which had Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World being the biggest film of 2010 mere days before it limped to a fifth place finish its opening weekend. Anytime there’s a tight-knit community of enthusiasts who are largely agreeing with each other there’s the risk of extrapolating that group’s passion to the larger population.
We need to, in order to fully accept Anderson’s point, concede that apps in whatever form we’re talking about are different from the software-based programs that people have been using on their computers for 20 years or more. Which, substantively, they’re not. I download the Tweetdeck application to my Mac desktop and it uses the internet but not “the web,” a differentiation helpfully pointed out by Colin Crook in some internal back-and-forth within Voce on this topic. But the experience I have using the Tweetedeck app on my phone isn’t all that different from using that desktop software. Apps are simply the next evolution of software.
Is there a shift away from browser-based functionality? To some extent. People may use Evernote to draft a blog post that they then paste into the WordPress app on their iPad, all using the internet but never touching the web. I’m guessing, though, that outside of some people who think they can do their entire job for a week or more just on a tablet device that doesn’t encapsulate the experience the vast majority of people are having.
On the backend most of these things still have web-based components. The blog that post is displayed after that copy/paste process above is finished still exists on the web. Similarly it’s always been a ridiculous argument to say that feeds are what matters and not websites since those feeds need to be generated from a website in some manner or another.
Look even at Twitter. If you want to engage in an update-based conversation there you need to setup an account, which brings with it a web presence for your username. People may choose to interact via text message but that web presence is essential for publishing. With the introduction of “Fast Follow” it’s possible to follow a profile via text without going through the account creation process, but that’s consumption only. Publishing still requires the web.
Getting even more philosophical, there’s never really been a pure “web experience.” It’s always been through an application, whether that’s Netscape Navigator or Chrome. So the user experience has, to some extent, always been app-reliant.
The web is beautiful in that it’s platform agnostic. We make a website here and we know it’s going to be working on OS X, Windows, Linux, PS3, Wii, mobile device, whatever (safe for maybe a few browser inconsistencies). There’s a lot of comfort in that as a developer and a lot of efficiency to be gained as a result. That can’t be said of apps currently. You make one thing for the iPhone, another for a BB, another for Android and yet another app for Mac and PC if you’d like desktop clients. While the experience of these apps can be great and increase your overall satisfaction with the service, they can become a bear to maintain because now you’re supporting five apps instead of one. Suddenly the potential beauty of your app can be its detriment when bugs arise or certain platforms are neglected over the more commonly used ones.
There are price considerations also that move beyond the philosophical and into more practical areas. Data charges are common which limit some usage of the very functions, including apps, that make a smart-phone so smart. And the phones themselves are still more expensive than many people can manage on top of the computer and web connection that allow them to send far-off grandparents pictures of Johnny’s first steps.
The bottom line is that the web isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future. Too many services count on it as the backbone of their infrastructure, some precisely because of the fact that it’s accessible regardless of the platform being used.