Everything moves in waves or big circles or spirals. Left and right wing politics, growing and shrinking economies, technological progress, relationships, you name it. And generally an upward spiral is preferred. The same applies to centralized and decentralized computing and “Web vs App”. Regarding the latter: Some say that the Web has had it’s time and the App will take over. The opposite used to be said 15 years ago.
The end of the App based Internet
The Internet started to grow fast in the early 90’s with applications retrieving information from servers and providing a user interface to users to interact with the information and create information themselves. In that time, the Internet was built on applications like Gopher clients, IRC clients, MUD clients, mail clients and later ICQ and MSN clients. All used to require local installations and all were at some point replaced or enhanced by a “web client”, a client running in an Internet browser.
There were some very good reasons to use a web client over an App:
- Platform independent (in stead of provider independent!)
- Does not require client side software installations or updates
- Users could access the tool everywhere
- Providers had more influence on look and feel and more options to display ads
And there were probably more. Some Apps with very specific uses like P2P file sharing, Skype and 3D games survived, but the rest became a web client. It was speculated (and Google promised) that normal operating systems would in the end be replaced by a single browser, which, by means of plug-ins, would enable you to do everything you used to do with a desktop, but then everywhere and always.
A new wave
And then the iPhone came. With it’s App store. The iPhone had a large screen, but it wasn’t big enough to display all websites and use all web-clients, like for instance Youtube. Apps circumvented this shortcoming by creating a custom interface for a specific online (or offline) service, like Twitter and Facebook, but also email. In some ways technologically moving us back more than 10 years in time.
The App store was very appealing to App developers as for the first time in a long time they were able to earn money with small, low development effort, dedicated tools. (The fact that this new distribution channel was easily accessible for newcomers also helped.) The iPhone platform is relatively well protected from illegal software distribution and for a relatively low price many users are found happy to pay for specific tools.
So, will Apps take over the web? Some people say Apps enable us to leverage the increasing computational capacity of the client. However, I don’t think we would appreciate an App to suck dry the battery of our phone, just to leverage the capacity of it. There is a reason why Nokia will offer it’s N8 users a remote service to render special effects into self made movies. At the same time Web browsers offer excellent opportunity to benefit from the client’s capacity, as they already do, where appropriate.
The consumer is King
Where 10 years ago browser and content were considered essential for ‘owning’ the Net (look at Netscape/AOL/Warner), some think that that can now be achieved with Apps. Companies are indeed trying to ‘own’ users by having them use their App with their service. As App developers have learned of the strength and weaknesses of the Web, Web developers are learning from the strengths and weaknesses of Apps. HTML5 has the potential of enabling the same as Apps are doing now, but then in a more open and flexible environment, where the consumer can be the owner. Apple and Google both embrace HTML5. Whether the consumer is king in the Internet market, it something we will find out in the future.
Apps and web will undoubtedly keep growing, and probably also towards each other. Having to find and use a specific App for a specific use is getting tiresome and finding your App on your widget screen is already becoming as cumbersome as managing your bookmarks. Apps will become less specific and more generic, as has been the trend with desktop applications for the last 30 years. At the same time the Web will make the opposite move, moving from single screen browsing via popup browsing and tabbed browsing, perhaps to ‘layered browsing’, where different windows and sites merge into one. Who knows.