Will Apps Unravel the World Wide Web?

    January 18, 2011
    Chris Crum

The title we went with on this article may come off as a bit sensational, but some pretty high profile web veterans might not think so. 

Speaking at Bristol University in the UK, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, had some less than positive things to say this week about the direction the web is taking – the app direction. As quoted by computing.co.uk:

"The debate is a highly overblown issue," said Wales in a response to question about his personal view of net neutrality. "A lot of the things that people are afraid of are in reality a long way from happening. The real threat comes from the apps model."

Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia About Apps as a DangerOn the open internet anyone can develop software and give it away or sell it. "But in the apps model, you have to get Apple’s permission," said Wales. "That choke point is very dangerous. It’s not theoretical like a network operator potentially shutting out Skype, it’s real and it’s happening now."

The words somewhat echo a recent report from the inventor of the web himself – Tim Berners-Lee. Here’s a sample from that:

In contrast, not using open standards creates closed worlds. Apple’s iTunes system, for example, identifies songs and videos using URIs that are open. But instead of "http:" the addresses begin with "itunes:," which is proprietary. You can access an "itunes:" link only using Apple’s proprietary iTunes program. You can’t make a link to any information in the iTunes world—a song or information about a band. You can’t send that link to someone else to see. You are no longer on the Web. The iTunes world is centralized and walled off. You are trapped in a single store, rather than being on the open marketplace. For all the store’s wonderful features, its evolution is limited to what one company thinks up.

Other companies are also creating closed worlds. The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone "apps" rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. It is better to build a Web app that will also run on smartphone browsers, and the techniques for doing so are getting better all the time.

Smartphone usage continues to skyrocket. Usage of the iPhone in particular is about to as it comes to Verizon. And of course 2011 is the year of the tablet as iPads continue to sell well and all of its competitors come to the market – many powered by App market places. 

In other words, don’t expect the app model being criticized by these guys to go away anytime soon. Berners-Lee’s report also criticized social networks like Facebook for walling off data, which is part of the same issue – a fragmented web, which could hardly be considered a web at all in the traditional sense of the word. 

The first definition of "web" listed in Google’s definition results is "an intricate network suggesting something that was formed by weaving or interweaving". While there is certainly plenty of room for interweaving within the app model, there is also plenty of room for disconnecting. Of course, when you take the second definition Google provides for "web" perhaps the web is in no danger at all: "an intricate trap that entangles or ensnare its victim."

There are a lot of great apps. There’s a reason the web is going in this direction, but will we reach a point where the apps that are supposed to bring more convenience to our lives end up creating an incredible inconvenience? Many of us are bound to reach that point repeatedly. 

Luckily, the web as we know it is still here too. It’s not really going anywhere, and is readily available from all of our smartphones, tablets, and connected device. It’s just that more of the innovation and development may go to serve these fragmented ecosystems rather than focus on the web itself. 

News Corp. is getting ready to release its latest publication called The Daily. Want to read subscribe? I hope you have an iPad.

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Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.