The battle is well under way but I find that most people barely notice it. As Shelly Freierman of the New York Times observed earlier this week, as developers put the finishing touches on the millionth mobile app (yes, millionth, as with an ‘M’), other channels are now outmatched:
The pace of new app development dwarfs the release of other kinds of media. [my emphasis] “Every week about 100 movies get released worldwide, along with about 250 books,” said Anindya Datta, the founder and chairman of Mobilewalla, which helps users navigate the mobile app market. “That compares to the release of around 15,000 apps per week.”
The Web can’t keep up either. Mobile has mindshare now. While classical Web pages made purely of static content still easily beat apps, that’s also not where the value or the action is today. As with any distribution curve, it’s true that much of what is being produced in mobile apps isn’t very interesting or even useful. But that’s not the point; it’s the sheer volume of investment that apps are attracting which means that the high side of the curve is aggregating some of the best talent, and results.
Moreover, there may be no easy way to catch up. A new generation of apps is appearing that takes advantage of the unique abilities that next-generation mobile devices alone usually possess. This includes location (GPS), orientation, images, video, audio, and increasingly, new capabilities like near field communication (NFC). Innovative apps like RunKeeper, StarWalk, and WordLens are only possible because of their deep integration with the rich sensors located in today’s mobile devices. HTML5 is going to address some of this disparity, but not quickly enough to address the tide of defections — and venture capital — from Web apps to mobile apps.
The genie won’t go back in the bottle
The sometimes-blind rush towards mobile apps has begun to concern me. For one, there’s little question that the proprietary element of apps — including their developer APIs, associated app stores, and underlying run-time platform and ecosystem — represents a very slippery slope back to the old days before the broad adoption of open standards (which includes virtually all of the Internet, even today.) That was back when industry giants like Microsoft and IBM called the shots and practically everyone was at their mercy, with independent developers at a distinct disadvantage with the platform owners themselves. There was often little choice and lots of lock-in. The arrival of the Web — and to an almost as large an extent open source — broke the stranglehold on proprietary platforms and put everyone on roughly the same playing field.
Then there is the model of the Web itself, something which has intrinsic properties that make it very, very special indeed. This especially includes deep link structure, which makes search work and provides link addressability to just about every element of information in the world (if it’s Web enabled that is.) After many long years of struggle, we are now finally seeing large companies starting to get the message that Web-orientation is a fundamentally powerful concept, perhaps more important than any computing idea since von Neumann architecture. The Web of pages, data, and even apps creates possibilities for ecosystems, integration, and synergy that’s more profound each and every day after nearly 20 years of continuous co-creation by everyone that uses and contributes to the Internet. All of this is now potentially threatened by the return of platform and app silos, proprietary mobile technology, and the seduction of new single-source forms of monetization of software, combined with a perception that app stores provide consumer safety that just doesn’t exist in the wild environs of the Web (which indeed they can.)
To be clear, I’m actually a genuine fan of mobile apps and have hundreds of them on my iPhone and iPad. They are sometimes well-integrated with the Web, but I’m constantly battling the “lock-up” they introduce: 1) I can’t easily copy and paste data in many apps, 2) you frequently can’t link to information, 3) it’s not searchable from one place, and so on. Worse, it’s usually stuck on one platform or even for a single device (I have plenty of iPad apps that won’t run on the iPhone for example.) In comparison, the Web gave us real choice in browsers, search engines, servers, services, apps and much more as well as an revolutionary data architecture that has unleashed the knowledge of humanity along with the social media revolution, which has ultimately given us (everyday people) leadership over the production and sharing of global information. We give this up at great peril.
Can we still get to a good place? Yes, but it’s up to you.
There is a distinct and sharp inclination today towards mobile apps. They are convenient, fast, fun, and always with us. I’m actually mostly for mobility in all its form — especially apps — but it now looks like we may have to re-fight the long and arduous wars of open standardization that got us to the right place with the Web. Like it was before, it will be hard going but worth it in spades.
I should also note that the evolution of the Internet did fall down in a few key places that originally led to the rise of native mobile apps — namely not keeping up with the capabilities of mobile devices and by not introducing a way to make apps as safe, easily distributed, and monetized as say, iOS has. For that, we might pay a very high price indeed; our autonomy, competitiveness, and freedom to choose. Unfortunately, it’s often a zero sum game in terms of the shift in investment: Most Web apps simply must have a native mobile front-end now. That means it costs more to produce or the app collectively does less. Worse, while most mobile apps also have a Web experience, I notice that a growing number of them are using them primarily for support and brochure-ware instead of providing an integrated Web experience. That’s the slippery slope defined.
Where all of this is headed is unclear and there are certainly many people working on unifying today’s Web and mobile devices. However, none have yet hit upon a solution that will be broadly adopted. I’ll explore this topic in more detail throughout 2012, but increasingly it is looking like a very large yet largely silent struggle is brewing between these two vitally important worlds. The upshot: The Web could potentially — in the long-term — become a second-class citizen and I’m very sure that’s not a good thing. Fortunately, in the end, I’m not overly worried about this yet, as the network effect of the Web is just so large. Then again though, so is the growing network effect of mobile devices. I’m certainly not alone in tracking this closely, a good piece by Gigaom’s Matthew Ingram this week discusses how folks like Dave Winer and John Battelle are thinking about the consequences. We all must do the same.
Mobile is just one of the Big Five IT trends that we must grapple with in order to make the transition to next-gen enterprises.