I remember reading Chris Anderson’s 2010 article for Wired, The Web is Dead. Long Live The Internet when it was originally published and recently stumbled across it again. At the time, I thought whilst there were some excellent and undeniably valid points made, some of its predictions were a little provocative. For those who don’t have time or motivation to read the original article, the basic premise was this;
- The traditional ‘open web’ full of websites searched for and accessed by people using web browsers on both desktop and mobile is in decline.
- Instead, the internet is becoming a transport mechanism to deliver information to mobile apps (iOS, Android etc). People prefer apps to the web browser because they offer a simple and better user experience to complete specific tasks - reading email, streaming music, booking flights etc.
- Developers themselves prefer building apps as it’s easier to make money from than the open web even though they exist in a ‘semi walled garden’, under the control of the vendors who provide the platforms (e.g. Apple, Google app stores).
- Given that (in 2010) the top 10 websites account for 75% of overall US web traffic (and rising) - it’s fair to say the open web is failing as a medium in that a few sites and people are controlling what people are viewing and reading on the web - it’s utopian nature all but disappearing and in the hands of big business. Apps have provided an alternative for businesses to find a voice.
- So although the traditional open web is dying, the internet itself is alive and well. The web browser was just the adolescent gateway interface of what the internet is to become.
Reading this in 2015 all of the above makes perfect sense and you would have to say Chris was pretty much on the money.
So, what was my problem?
Because in 2010, although you could see the trend it was not as clearcut that apps would continue to increase and maintain their dominance. I believed and expected Chris and others would have also truly believed that entrepreneurs and developers would rebel against having their businesses be at the mercy of the App store semi walled gardens. Especially with the ever changing rules and restrictions enforced by Apple. Not to mention the 30% cut they take from your revenue. This, in conjunction with improved user experience possibilities due to continual advances in browser technology would lead businesses back to the web browser to build their apps.
At the end of the day though, the app stores provide a simple and safe to use discovery platform (although still poor to search). Also, money talks - if apps are what consumers prefer using and the potential market and revenues are larger then businesses will comply. And while there have been many advances in the technologies used to build the interface components of websites, they haven't caught up to providing an 'app-like experience'.
What are the ramifications of this trend? What's the state of play in 2015 and where is the internet headed?
What has happened is that some of the major 'open web' players such as Facebook (a closed platform in itself) have simply shifted focus and now dominate apps the same way they dominated the browser. Facebook are a great cases study, as not only has the functionality of their mobile apps caught up and in some areas surpassed the desktop browser version, they have also made strategic app acquisitions (Instagram, WhatsApp) to fill in the gaps.
Facebook has become a monolith. Due to distributed content it has become the largest media consumption provider on the internet. The company's strategy is simple - to create an ecosystem whereby one never needs to leave its confines. And if there's something you want not already being pushed to your feed it's easy to search for it. They have become a major search engine with the added bonus of having its user less likely to have to leave their site/app for content consumption - something Google can't boast. At this point in time they are the threat to Google's online advertising dominance. It's interesting to see the contrasting approach between the two companies - Facebook is trying to bring the whole web inside their ecosystem whilst Google, traditionally thriving on the open web (not to mention Android) try and provide many useful services for free in order to get advertising in front of your eyes in as many places as possible.
A perfect example of the push away from the web browser is the position online media publishers find themselves in. The majority of their content is now being found and read through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter... even Flipboard, rather than consumers going to or making the discovery on the content creator's actual website. The media publishers are losing control of their content as news is funnelled through these social media platforms. Facebook have even started encouraging publishers to work with them and push their content directly to their servers rather than self publish. I can't see publishers giving up control of their content so easily but they certainly need to weigh up which method is going to provide them with more advertising dollars. (Update May 13 2015: Facebook release Instant Articles hosting content directly publishing content from The New York Times, The Guardian, Buzzfeed and more).
If you're a business, large or small traditionally promoting yourself online through a 'brochure' website, it's hard to deny that in a lot of cases creating a Facebook page for your business is cheaper, more effective and provides more opportunity for engagement with your customers than your website ever did. And if you're in eCommerce, social media platforms have created many new and engaging promotional opportunities for your products. Instagram alone can have a tremendously positive impact on eyeballs and sales. All predominantly accessed through mobile apps.
So, has the internet now matured from an relatively open browser based system to a predominantly mobile app-centric one? Yes, it has definitely shifted in that direction and will continue to do so. However this will start to fragment even further outside of mobile with the multitude of wearable and connected home devices hitting the market. This is an area where Google and Amazon, with their cloud infrastructure, strategic acquisitions and developer tools may help win back some ground over the likes of FaceBook and Apple.
However, I believe the next big thing to disrupt the internet has been slowly bubbling away and gaining momentum for a few years now. That next big thing being voice search.
Voice search will shake up the way consumers engage with the internet once again. It's likely to put the final nails in the coffin of the desktop web browser in terms of it being a major search tool. All of the major players have been aware of this for some time now. That's why they all put so much effort into their virtual assistants such as Siri, Google Now, Cortana and the relatively unique Amazon Echo. Google itself has been investing heavily in voice search - tweaking its ever changing search ranking algorithm to increase its focus on voice. Interestingly Facebook, for the moment anyway, have been very quiet in this space. Let's be clear - all of these virtual assistants want to be the starting point of your internet experience - for if they can control the funnel, they can control the consumer and therefore control the advertising dollars.
In 2015 the mobile-centric world we knew was coming is in full bloom. Under the surface though, things are starting to heat up as we approach an increasingly keyboard-free, hardware connected and data trackable world. One thing's for sure, 2020 will be very different to now. It's starting to feel a little like 2010 all over again.