The rise of mobile apps and the decline of the open web — a threat or an over-reaction?

As the use of mobile devices continues to climb, the use of dedicated apps is also increasing — but is this a natural evolution, or should we be worried about apps winning and the open web losing? Chris Dixon, a partner with venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, argues in a recent blog post that we should be concerned, because it is creating a future in which the web becomes a “niche product,” and the dominant environment is one of proprietary walled gardens run by a couple of web giants — and that this is bad for innovation.
Dixon’s evidence consists in part of two recent charts: one is from the web analytics company comScore, and shows that mobile usage has overtaken desktop usage — an event that occurred in January of this year. The second chart is from Flurry, which tracks app usage, and it shows that apps account for the vast majority of time spent vs. the mobile web, an amount that Flurry says is still growing. I’ve combined the two charts into one (somewhat ugly) graphic below:
Apps vs. web

If apps are winning, is the web losing?

The implication of all this is obvious, says Dixon. Mobile is the future, and what wins on mobile will win the internet — and “right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.” Not only that, but Dixon argues that the problem is likely to get worse, as more companies realize that an app gives them much more control over the user experience than a website. And with less and less investment in making the web experience better on mobile, it will continue to deteriorate, which in turn will push users even further towards the use of apps.

“The likely end state is the web becomes a niche product used for things like 1) trying a service before you download the app, 2) consuming long tail content (e.g. link to a niche blog from Twitter or Facebook feed).”

Why is this worth getting concerned about? Because the app economy creates an environment in which “the rich get richer,” Dixon argues: popular apps dominate the user’s home screen, and therefore get used more, get ranked higher in apps stores, etc. and make more money. The result, he says, is a future “like cable TV – a few dominant channels/apps that sit on users’ home screens and everything else relegated to lower tiers or irrelevance.”
In his own blog post on the topic, Union Square Ventures founder Fred Wilson said the mobile app explosion is already having an impact on innovation. In a recent meeting, Union Square partners looked at their portfolios and “there was a palpable sense that the wide open period of innovation” that existed in 2004 or even 2008 was not as present now, thanks in large part to the rise of native mobile apps.

“It has gotten harder, not easier, to innovate on the Internet with the smartphone emerging as the platform of choice vs the desktop browser.”

Is the open web becoming less relevant?

Open sign
For me at least, this debate brings back memories of a classic Wired magazine cover story from 2010, co-written by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, with the alarming headline “The Web Is Dead.” There was much criticism of the piece at the time — including some from me in a post here — because of the way it described web usage, and also because it didn’t really distinguish between using native apps and apps that were built from open-web technologies like HTML5. That said, however, the future that Wired described — in which users primarily engage with digital content through dedicated apps from providers like Facebook and Twitter and the New York Times — has largely come true.
As a number of commenters on Dixon’s post and at Hacker News have pointed out, the Flurry chart doesn’t break out how much of the app activity is game-related, and this inflates the numbers substantially, given all of the Flappy Bird and Dots and Candy Crush behavior we have seen over the past few years. You can see that in this chart that tech analyst Ben Thompson shared in a guest post on Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg’s blog, in response to the Flurry data:
Thompson notes that there are a number of reasons why we shouldn’t panic about the “death of the web,” including the fact that in many cases mobile usage is additive — that is, the size of the pie continues to grow. John Gruber, meanwhile, says the distinction between apps and the web is in some sense almost meaningless, since most apps (including Facebook’s) are just web content in a different wrapper. He also notes that WhatsApp, Instagram and other success stories could never have happened with just the web.

Thompson and Gruber are right on many of those points. But while Thompson says writing is still relatively open despite the trend toward apps, and that “the web is like water — it fills in all the gaps,” I am left wondering how much writing and other content creation is occurring now inside walled gardens that could be outside of them. Even the New York Times has said that it sees its future being driven primarily by multiple segregated apps for its content. Is that a good thing?
Dixon and Wilson aren’t the only ones who are concerned about this trend: although his focus isn’t necessarily on innovation per se, the web’s creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee has talked a number of times about his fear that the open web will be smothered by walled gardens or “closed worlds,” and proprietary services that make interaction difficult if not impossible. In a piece for Scientific American in 2010, he said that if this continued unchecked:

“We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want [and] the ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.”

Berners-Lee’s concern, not surprisingly, revolves around links — the whole purpose of the web being to link things together in interesting or relevant ways. How does that happen with apps? The answer is that it doesn’t. Even app makers whose entire business is content, like the New York Times, seem to include links begrudgingly, if at all. It may be imperceptible, but the loss of that kind of connection could have very real repercussions — and they likely won’t become obvious until it’s too late.
Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Shutterstock / noporn