Are mobile apps killing the Web?

Faith Merino · March 23, 2012 · Short URL:

Pew researchers turn to experts and stakeholders to find out about the future of the Web

Is the mobile app killing the Web?  That's a question Pew researchers recently took up in a survey of over 1,000 Internet experts and stakeholders.  The results: slightly more than half of those surveyed believe the open Web will continue to play a prominent role in people's lives, but a full third believe that mobile apps will eclipse the Internet altogether.

The Web opposition came up following a Wired article in which the authors argued that as more people access the Web via their mobile devices, Web browsers--which are typically more awkward to use on smartphones--will become obsolete as users begin to gravitate more heavily to mobile apps.  Case-in-point: Facebook--the anti-Internet.

So researchers for the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project asked the experts what we can expect in the coming years.  Some questioned the opposition itself, arguing that the future holds a mix mobile apps and Web browsers, particularly as they converge in the cloud.  But by and large, the majority of respondents agreed--59%--agreed that by 2020, the Web will continue to take center-stage, while apps "will be useful as specialized options for a finite number of information and entertainment functions."

Other respondents were not so optimistic regarding the future of the Web: 35% believe that by the year 2020, most Web-users will access the Internet via mobile apps.

The issue, however, is moot, since both sides fail to take into account the fact that as of December 2012, there will no longer be an Internet.

Some respondents predicted that the Web and mobile apps won't be dichotomously opposed at all--but will intertwine more closely.  Interestingly, a number of respondents indicated that they are not exactly confident that the open Web will continue to trump mobile apps, but rather that they're hopeful it will.
“The corporate push is to close off the Web and rely upon apps, as they are easier to control and turn into commodities for sale,” UC Davis professor of technocultural studies Jesse Drew told Pew researchers.

“I wish it weren’t true, but the history of enclosure, centralization, and consolidation makes me very pessimistic about the open Web winning over the closed apps,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award winner Seth Finkelstein. “There will always be a Web, but it may end up like the imagery of a person standing on a soapbox, referred to more for its romantic symbolism than mattering in reality.”

Finkelstein knows how to paint a pretty grim picture.

So what will this mean for the future of Internet politics?

"If users’ experience of the Web is largely through the lens of their apps, will they still perceive themselves as users of the Web?" asks Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University.  "Will they feel like they have a stake in Web standards, access, interoperability, and Net neutrality?  Given how hard it is to engage today’s users in these issues, it’s hard to see how people who have grown up or lived behind the app wall will really feel connected to the Web as a whole.”

Internet-user apathy isn't that hard to envision, given the fact that most people don't really care about Google tracking their comings and goings now.  But with mobile apps forming a sort of meta-Internet experience, it's easy to lose sight of one's own presence as a Web voice.

But the award for the most dismal future outlook goes to former White House technology advisor and Harvard professor Susan Crawford, who argues: “Apps are like cable channels—closed, proprietary, and cleaned-up experiences…I don’t want the world of the Web to end like this. But it will, because people’s expectations have been shaped by companies that view them as consumers. Those giant interests will push every button they can: fear, inexperience, passivity, and willingness to be entertained. And we’ll get a cleaned-up world that we can be perfectly billed for. It’s not good.”

And on that happy note, enjoy your weekend, everyone!

No, that's not a happy way to start your Friday. 

Said one anonymous respondent: “The very notion of ‘apps’ vs. ‘Web’ misses the point of changes in infrastructure that are rather closer on the horizon. This does not even take into account two extraordinarily important things: 1) The majority of the world accesses network
communications via a mobile phone (and though network access is patchy at best, apps in this
case are far more efficient) and 2) apps and Web are becoming very much interconnected with
cloud. It is the cloud that is poised to change how things are done for work, play, and
communication and apps and Web will provide interfaces.”

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