The Dying Web

Posted in Apps, Games, Technology, Web Design

The web is dying?

Of course it’s dying.

The author of this opinion piece isn’t the first to point out that it seems like mobile apps are taking up a ton of time and attention away from “the web”, defined as the traditional and boring websites that are frequented via a “web” browser. Mobile apps allow for hardware integration and have proven to be more convenient, while browsers are trying to catch up in theory but lag behind in implementation.

It’s a sign of the times when mobile’s primary disadvantages – the lack of screen real estate, and imprecise input methods – are now limitations to be designed around.

This characterization rings true for certain types of customer-facing software, some of which would not exist without close access to the new types of sensors and hardware that are shoved in today’s phones. Take fitness tracking: a 10 lbs. desktop would not be a welcome computing device to the gym, regardless of how the interface would be rendered.

It’s a massive stretch to declare that mobile apps – extended to new levels with wearables – can and are replacing the web completely. Practically, we have not come up with a good way to work with large and complex sets of data on mobile devices. There are some areas where data gathering is made easier via hardware sensors (e.g., Touch ID, accelerometers), but unsurprisingly, the classes of data that can be captured by hardware tend to be limited to local environments and personalized to the device owner. That is, the user never has to manage the data, but simply let the underlying apps process it and generate reasonable results.

One big reason tablets have failed in replacing the PC is that they’re not productive machines. The lack of great input mechanisms combined with tradeoffs in raw computing power make tablets and phones much less efficient for many types of computing work; mobility is simply much less of an advantage. Businesses are keeping around computers for managing operations, and serving them will remain an important use case for the web.

Onto the apps themselves, the big hurdle that app-centric companies continue to face are the challenges around branding and recognition. Installing and running apps are not common activities, and getting phone users to download a new app is becoming increasingly expensive. It’s no coincidence that mobile games are one of the few profitable areas left for app development; their business model[1] still works and is driving user acquisition costs beyond reasonable levels for everybody else.

Intuitively, not every blog and news site should have its own app. The ones with strong brands built elsewhere – think the New York Times – have a small chance of succeeding with a branded app, while most others will have to make do with links that open up embedded browsers, typically inside of a popular app like Facebook or Twitter. Facebook knows this, and so it’s only logical for them to angle for more control over letting their users wander around the world wide web.

From a developer’s standpoint, the web is far from dying. The cost and speed of development still favors the web by a substantial margin, and while mobile development has pushed the web to better interfaces, the web has also shared many of its best practices. The web as simply another view into a service, built upon client-side business logic and UI, and it happens to be friendly for new programmers as well as allow for faster development iteration[2].

Is the web dying? Admittedly, its role has been reduced in the face of the convenience of mobile apps, particularly for user-facing customer products. But in other areas, the web’s strong development story, desktop-friendly characteristics, and hyperlinked nature allow the platform to shine. The two sides will have to be content with learning from each other.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Which, not too long ago, was seen as wildly profitable on Facebook and spurred IPOs and acquisitions.
  2. Take, for instance, the redesigned ESPN app. It launched ahead of its site redesign, but almost all of the detailed content is actually punted to an embedded webview.