When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, they began a major shift in the mobile phone market that former competitors like BlackBerry are still struggling to deal with. When they introduced the App Store in 2008, they began a trend that would ultimately change how we access the internet itself.
Now that "there's an app for that," smartphone and tablet users can accomplish nearly everything they need or want to do on the internet without ever opening a browser and navigating the web in the traditional sense. Search, social networking, email, watching video, checking the weather, following the news, reading blogs, and virtually everything else we do on the internet can be done from within an app that streamlines and simplifies the experience and, usually, performs much better than the same service in a mobile browser. Apps have become a major path to the internet for many. In fact, according to a recent study from Pew Internet, apps have surpassed both mobile and desktop browsers in terms of time spent accessing the internet. What's more, the dominance of apps is only going to grow in the next few years as the use of smartphones and tablets increases around the world.
The study, conducted by surveying 1,021 "technology stakeholders and critics" between August 28th and October 31st, 2011, asked questions about how they expected users to access the internet in 2020. Respondents were presented with two statements and encouraged to state whether they agreed, then write a more in-depth response detailing their predictions for the future of the internet and their reasoning. Here are the two statements presented to respondents:
In 2020, the World Wide Web is stronger than ever in users' lives. The open Web continues to thrive and grow as a vibrant place where most people do most of their work, play, communication, and content creation. Apps accessed through iPads, Kindles, Nooks, smartphones, Droid devices, and their progeny—the online tools GigaOM referred to as "the anti-Internet"—will be useful as specialized options for a finite number of information and entertainment functions. There will be a widespread belief that, compared to apps, the Web is more important and useful and is the dominant factor in people's lives.
Fifty-nine percent of respondents agreed with this statement, while 35% agreed with a statement presenting the opposite view:
In 2020, most people will prefer to use specific applications (apps) accessible by Internet connection to accomplish most online work, play, communication, and content creation. The ease of use and perceived security and quality-assurance characteristics of apps will be seen as superior when compared with the open Web. Most industry innovation and activity will be devoted to apps development and updates, and use of apps will occupy the majority of technology users' time. There will be a widespread belief that the World Wide Web is less important and useful than in the past and apps are the dominant factor in people's lives.
The report points out that the goal of this survey was "not to derive a clear-cut statistical outcome," but rather to prompt detailed discussions of the future of the web. The survey was opt-in, and the sample was "diverse but non-random." Written responses to the study were varied. Some argued for the web's enduring importance.
The World Wide Web may evolve significantly, but the core design of open and scalable will make it the compelling solution.
-Robert Cannon, senior counsel for Internet law for the FCC.
The browser—or its future equivalent—will continue to have key advantages over apps. They are connected to the entire Net, they offer full interoperability, and they give the user more power than the developer or publisher. Yes, publishers have dreamed that apps would return to them the control of content, experience, business model, and pricing that the Net took from them, but they are merely deluding themselves. The value is not in their control of content but in the ability to become platforms for users to do what they want to do.
-Jeff Jarvis, blogger and professor at the City University of New York.
Others argued that the app model would dominate, though some felt that this was not a good thing.
Ease of use always wins.
-Fred Hapgood, author and technology consultant.
-Brian Trammell, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
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.
-Seth Finkelstein, EFF Pioneer Award winner.
Still others, however, said that the apps vs. web dichotomy was incorrect and unhelpful:
Both will continue to grow in ways that are impossible for most to imagine…. Apps are generally better for narrowly defined repetitive tasks, especially where your needs can be narrowed by your location, time, etc. The Web will remain better for asynchronous exploring and continue its gateway role.
-Tony Smith, Open Source Developers Club
The internet is a vast, ever-changing thing. It has often defied attempts to predict what it would look like in the future. What is certain is that app-based platforms like smartphones and tablets are penetrating farther and farther into the market, to the point that non-smartphones are likely to become the minority in the not-so-distant future. That suggests that whatever the future of the web may be, apps will continue to play a major role in how we access it, for better or for worse.
How do you spend most of your time on the internet? Smartphone/tablet apps, mobile browsers, or desktop browsers? Do you think apps could ever supplant the traditional web in importance? Let us know in the comments.