Back in August Wired magazine made the headline grabbing claim that the Web was dead. Its argument was fairly simple. The days of the browser-based World Wide Web where people search for and consume content through Web sites are numbered thanks to the rise of Apps (and similar products/services), which offer a more streamlined and targeted user experience. In short, the humble old Web page is on death’s door and its father the Web browser has been diagnosed with an incurable disease. This argument would actually make a lot of sense if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s completely wrong. Here’s why.
The Web browser has – at least in Internet years – gone through a long and fascinating history of development. First there was Netscape Navigator, the early pace setter in the 1990s. Then there was Microsoft Internet Explorer, the graceless bulldozer which went on to dominate the browser world. Other contenders followed including Firefox (light and nimble, now suffering from middle-aged spread), Opera (impressive but too-clever-for-its-own-good), Safari (great for Mac, pointless for PC) and now Google Chrome (currently my browser of choice). While to the average consumer the browser may seem boring, it has served as the gateway to the Internet for anyone who’s ever been online. For most people there simply wouldn’t have been the Internet without the browser.
But after 15 years of digital domination, Apps are now stealing all the limelight. In under 3 years there are now over 250,000 apps in the Apple iTunes App Store alone. They’re slick, sexy and give content owners the opportunity to sell their content for a premium in neat little self-contained packages. And this is exactly what’s getting the editors at Wired all worked up into a froth and ready to scatter the ashes of the browser in a tranquil corner of Silicon Valley.
The benefit of working in an industry that changes as rapidly as digital is that new and interesting ideas are constantly emerging. The downside is that for every 3 good ideas there are three short-term fads and sometimes it’s difficult to separate between the two without the benefit of hindsight. It’s for this very reason that articles titled “The Future Of …” – and insert any word you want after the three dots – are always useless. In the digital space nobody really knows the future of anything. Nobody predicted the huge growth of Google. Nobody gave advance warning that Facebook would one day essentially dominate the Internet. And lots of people predicted that Second Life – remember that? – would become the biggest thing in the history of the Web. So digital analysts are about as useful as pretty much ANY analyst, insofar as they never really know what the future holds.
Now to be clear I’m certainly not suggesting that Apps are a fad. I own both an iPhone and an iPad and use a variety of Apps daily. But while I think they add a really useful new dimension to a person’s everyday digital life, I don’t think they’re going to replace the browser anytime soon.
Firstly, let’s look at install base. The best stats that I could find suggest that out of a total world population of almost 7 billion (as of 2010), there are about 2 billion Internet users. Without knowing the exact breakdown, I’m assuming that almost 100 per cent of these Internet users have access and use a Web browser on a laptop or desktop computer. Apple, Google and RIM continue to ship millions of their devices each quarter but it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever get close to an install base of 2 billion. So the browser has mass reach.
Secondly, let’s look at convenience. Apps are great because they save me the hassle of having to open a Web browser and type in a url or perform a search. But Apps are also somewhat self limiting insofar as unless your needs are satisfied by all the apps you currently have installed, you’re forced to go through the process of looking for and then installing a new one. Apps aren’t very reactive because they rely on users to actually install them. I have about 12 apps on my iPhone that cover everything from the weather, through to buying movie tickets. But let’s say one day I decide I want to browse my local sports scores. Or I need to find out how to change the oil on my car. Since I don’t have any apps installed to help me with these specific needs my choices are to either search the App store to find some that might, or simply open a browser. The browser will always win hands-down because there are no restrictions on what it can do. It is the original gateway to the Web and it embodies all the qualities of infinite choice and possibilites of the Internet.
But what about all the fanciful effects? The page-flipping and the slick interfaces that make regular www. web pages seem flat and lifeless. That’s where HTML 5 comes in. It may still be rough around the edges and is only supported by newer browsers, but HTML 5 allows developers to create Web pages with similar interfaces and visual effects as those within apps. This creates the possibility of building app-like experiences directly within a browser as opposed to an app itself. One reason this option should be attractive for publishers is because for browser-based experiences on the Web they keep 100 per cent of the revenue. With Apple Apps, Apple keeps 30 per cent of everything that’s sold.
Finally, many of the companies who are declaring the Web to be dead and Apps to be the new king have never actually managed to make any meaningful money on the Web. Over the last 15 years companies have discovered that making money on the Internet is hard. In fact it’s so hard that there are a large number of big brands across different sectors (but especially the media sector) that have been unable to turn a meaningful profit from running a Web site. So it’s with this point in mind – and with an almost lovable absence of self-awareness – that it seems remarkable for some companies to declare browsers dead and simply assume that even though they could never figure out how to run a Web site doesn’t in any way affect their ability to make billions from apps.
There’s no doubt that in their short life Apps have had a huge impact on the digital space. But just because the browser is old and boring doesn’t mean it should be shipped off to the sheltered care home just yet. So I’d suggest you augment your digital strategy with some really strong app products, but don’t think they’re going to replace a browser-based experience anytime soon. The browser is and always will be your gateway to the endless possibilities the Web has to offer without rules or constraints. And at the time of writing at least, there isn’t an App for that.