The Web celebrated its 25th anniversary on March 11. That’s too young to die, but there’s reason to worry about its survival.
The open Web is in trouble and mobile apps are to blame, according to a rapidly forming consensus among Silicon Valley pundits and prognosticators.
The catalyst for this view is a new report out of Flurry, a mobile analytics company, which found that 86 percent of the time users spend working with a mobile device involves apps—up from 80 percent in the previous year. Only 14 percent of the time is now spent using the open Web, according to the report.
Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz considered this trend alongside the trend away from desktop computing to mobile “computing” (the use of smartphones and tablets). The inescapable conclusion of these two trends, projected into the future, is that people will soon be spending an overwhelming amount of their time using apps and an insignificant fraction surfing the Web with a Web browser of some kind.
Dixon fears that abandonment of the Web will disincentivize investment in Web development, thus contributing further to its demise. This is problematic, according to Dixon, because the open nature of the Web led to experimentation and innovation, whereas the app world is overly controlled by companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft.
It all sounds dire and alarmist. But, in fact, other trends beyond mobile usage and mobile apps lead away from the Web.
The first trend is wearable computing. Wearable devices are, for the most part, not only app-centric like smartphones are, but in most cases can’t and won’t even be capable of providing a Web interface.
One of our first examples of a wearable device, Google Glass, can, in fact, show you Web pages. When a query leads to a dead end, it asks if you want to see the page. But when it shows you a Web page, the experience is so horrible that you’ll vow to never make that mistake again.
Although wearable devices and mobile devices—and desktop devices, for that matter—have different models for presenting an interface for finding and displaying information and also for communication, they each give you a comparable result.
For example, a rudimentary task might be finding out the weather. On a desktop computer, you might type weather.com into your browser’s address box. Or you could just type in weather, and if it’s Chrome, Google will show you a “card” with the current weather report for your location. In either case, you’re using a browser to surf the Web and you’re interacting with the product of someone’s Web development efforts.
You could do something similar on a mobile app. But the default behavior is to launch a weather app, which you’ve already set up to know your location.
Mobile Apps Bringing the End of the World Wide Web as We Know It
So how do you do this on a wearable device, such as smart glasses or a smartwatch? I believe the default behavior will be via a virtual assistant, such as Google Now on the Android Wear devices, Siri on the rumored and expected Apple “iWatch,” and inevitably Cortana on some easily imaginable Microsoft smartwatch.
So much of what we do on desktops with Web browsing and on smartphones with apps will be accomplished with a simple voice request on wearable devices.
This brings us to the next trend that will erode use of the Web: virtual assistants. Instead of Googling questions when we want information, choosing a site from the search results, and then getting our answer from the site, the wearable revolution will coincide with virtual assistants. Instead of a long list of search results, which represent options, virtual assistants will simply try to provide answers—or media—or agency.
Regarding media, we might say: “Play ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams” and the song will play. No surfing, no apps.
Regarding agency, we might say: “Move my meeting from Tuesday to Wednesday.” No online calendar site, no mobile calendar app.
There’s no reason to believe virtual assistants won’t be very good at it and that people won’t adapt to these new behaviors.
All the fears and worries about mobile apps should be compounded with the wearable and virtual assistant trends.
If Google, Apple and Microsoft as leaders of their respective mobile app ecosystems have too much control (compared with the open Web), they’ll have vastly more control when their respective virtual assistant products are spoon-feeding us answers and favoring their own solutions for doing things for us—for example, their own music services or their own calendar services.
That’s why all this doom-and-gloom over the fate of the open Web is misplaced. What the mobile adoption and mobile app usage trends are doing to the open Web is nothing compared to what the wearable and virtual assistant trends will do.
Of course, there’s no panic in the streets of this future I’m describing and mainly because hardly anyone believes it.
People—even tech pundits—talk as if the wearable computing movement might be a fad and as if the virtual assistant applications are little more than a gimmicky parlor trick.
But buy a time machine on Craigslist, go back in time 10 years and try to convince the world that people would be replacing PCs with smartphones and tablets and that cheap little apps would be displacing Web surfing. Nobody would believe that, either.
I believe the wearable and virtual assistant trends are very real and very likely to cause a profound change in how people communicate and interact with information.
Of course, the Web will be with us forever. But the trend away from the Web for the masses will surely be accelerated beyond what’s happening with mobile apps once the wearable and virtual assistant trends take hold and then accelerate over the coming years.