Chris Dixon has a fairly eloquent blog post where he talks about the decline of the mobile web. He cites the following chart

and talks about what it means for the future of innovation if apps which tend to be distributed from app stores managed by corporate gate keepers continue to dominate the web as the primary way people connect on the Internet.

Using HTTP Doesn’t Make Something Part of the Web

In response to Chris Dixon’s post I’ve seen a fallacy repeated a number of times. The most visible instance of this fallacy is John Gruber’s Rethinking What We Mean by ‘Mobile Web’ where he writes

I think Dixon has it all wrong. We shouldn’t think of the “web” as only what renders inside a web browser. The web is HTTP, and the open Internet. What exactly are people doing with these mobile apps? Largely, using the same services, which, on the desktop, they use in a web browser.
Yes, Apple and Google (and Amazon, and Microsoft) control their respective app stores. But the difference from Dixon’s AOL analogy is that they don’t control the internet — and they don’t control each other. Apple doesn’t want cool new apps launching Android-only, and it surely bothers Google that so many cool new apps launch iOS-first. Apple’s stance on Bitcoin hasn’t exactly kept Bitcoin from growing explosively. App Stores are walled gardens, but the apps themselves are just clients to the open web/internet.
The rise of mobile apps hasn’t taken anything away from the wide open world of web browsers and cross-platform HTML/CSS/JavaScript — other than supremacy. I think that bothers some, who saw the HTML/CSS/JavaScript browser-centric web’s decade-ago supremacy as the end point, the ultimate triumph of a truly open platform, rather than what it really was: just another milestone along the way of an industry that is always in flux, ever ebbing and flowing.

What we’ve gained, though, is a wide range of interaction capabilities that never could have existed in a web browser-centric world. That to me is cause for celebration.

The key point here is that the World Wide Web and the Internet are different things. The definition of the web I use comes from Tim Berners-Lee’s original proposal of a browsable information network of hyperlinked documents & media on a global network. The necessary building blocks for this are a way to identify these documents (URIs), the actual content of these documents (HTML/JS/CSS/media), how clients obtain these documents (HTTP) and the global network they site on (The Internet).

This difference is important to spell out because although HTTP and the Internet are key parts of the world wide web, they aren’t the web. One of the key things we lose with apps is public addressability (i.e. URIs for the technically inclined). What does this mean in practice

  • Visiting a website is as simple as being told “go to” from any browser on any platform using any device. Getting an app requires the app developer to have created an app for your platform which may not have occurred due to technical limitations, policy limitations of the platform owner or simply the cost of supporting multiple platforms being higher than they want to bear.

  • Content from apps is often invisible to search engines like Google and Bing since their information is not part of the web.

  • Publishing a website simply requires getting a web host or even just hosting your own server. Publishing an app means submitting your product to some corporation then restricting your content and functionality to their rules & regulations before being made available to end users.

The key loss being that we are regressing from a globally accessible information network which reaches everyone on earth and where no publisher needs permission to reach billions of people to lots of corporate controlled fiefdoms and walled gardens.

I don’t disagree with Gruber’s notion that mobile apps have introduced new models of interaction that would not have existed in a web-browser centric world. However that doesn’t mean we aren’t losing something along the way.

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Categories: Technology | Web Development