Apps vs. the web: Are they enemies or allies?

George Colony, the chairman and CEO of Forrester Research, re-ignited a minor firestorm recently, with a presentation at the LeWeb conference in which he argued that the web is dead, and being replaced by the app economy — with mobile and smartphone apps that leverage the cloud or other services rather than the open web. That sparked some strong responses from longtime open-web advocates such as RSS pioneer Dave Winer, who argued that apps are not the future, and others who compared them to the “interactive” CD-ROMS of the 1990s. Do apps necessarily mean the death of the web, and if so doesn’t that mean we are losing something important?

Colony (whose presentation is here and slides are here) argued that the “app Internet” is the future in part because of the continuing increase in computing power — both in the cloud, where giant server farms store and process our data, and in the devices we hold in our hands (in the 1990s, according to Forrester, the iPad2 would have been one of the most powerful computers in the world). But bandwidth hasn’t kept up with these changes, said Colony, and therefore the web as we know it has to give way to a world of apps that process and display the data coming from services in the cloud.

Closed systems are great if you own the platform

This may sound like a great world if you are an app developer — or if you are a key part of the app economy the way that Apple (s aapl) and other platform providers such as Facebook and Google (s goog) are. Apps are useful because they allow you to control the experience your users have down to the tiniest detail, and also because they give you a channel with which to offer them things they might pay for, whether that’s the app itself or the content or service you get through it (games, reviews, newspaper content, etc.). If you are Facebook, you get a direct channel to the players of those Zynga games or the social-reading apps that media companies have launched.

But not everyone thinks this is a great world to live in: Winer, for example, says this app ecosystem is like a series of disconnected silos of information — silos that work only with a specific service or platform, and that in many cases can’t even link to other apps or to content outside their own silo. As Winer put it:

[I]f I can’t link in and out of your world, it’s not even close to a replacement for the web. It would be as silly as saying that you don’t need oceans because you have a bathtub. How nice your bathtub is. Try building a continent around it.

Web veteran John Battelle of Federated Media made a similar argument in his response to Colony, saying the app ecosystem has benefits, but that it still doesn’t offer most of the things that he associates with the open web — and if the “app Internet” replaces the web but doesn’t develop those features, then as far as he is concerned the web might as well be dead. Like Winer, the Federated Media founder said that the most important of those features is the fact that the web is based on open standards, so websites can easily interoperate and exchange data. Apps, by contrast, are walled gardens that can only talk to each other if the platform owner allows it.

Is the web dead, or is it just evolving?

As Winer noted in his post, this theme has come up before — and will likely come up again. The last time it reared its head was last year, when Wired magazine ran a cover story arguing that the “web is dead” and the app economy is taking over (although it used a somewhat misleading graph of web traffic to make this argument). Among the responses to the issues raised in the story was one from the web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who argued that this trend was something fundamentally negative, since it gave platform companies like Apple and Google control over their walled gardens in a way that was bad for the internet as a whole and likely for society as well.

As some have pointed out, to a certain extent the debate over the web vs. the app ecosystem is a debate over terminology. After all, many apps are simply dedicated web browsers that use web-based standards and technologies to display and manage data — and there’s no question that some apps do this in a way that adds a lot of value for users. Games, for example, can do much more within a native app than they could with HTML5, and so can apps that use a device’s camera or other built-in features — such as Path, which is one of the most beautifully designed apps I’ve ever used.

Some, including startup advisor and investor Dave McClure of 500Startups, say there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between apps and the web, and that apps which can link and exchange information across different services or devices are possible — even if there aren’t many of them right now. Apps don’t have to be walled garden-style silos like the CD-ROMs of the late 1990s, as Scott Hanselman referred to them in a post responding to Colony’s presentation. Social-web consultant Stowe Boyd argues that we need a different paradigm that goes beyond either the browser-based web or the simple nature of apps, and that the app ecosystem we have now is (or should be) just a transition phase.

Ideally, we will wind up with a world that combines the best of apps and the best features of the web — the openness, the lack of proprietary standards and gatekeeper-style platform owners. Perhaps somewhere out there, startup founders and developers are working on just that kind of solution. Like Battelle and Winer, I hope we can get there.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jason L. Parks and Fabio Venni