The Web Isn't Dying, But Control Is - InformationWeek

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08:36 AM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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The Web Isn't Dying, But Control Is

In a renewed debate about the health of the web and the dominance of native apps, let's not gloss over the issue of user control.

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The web isn't dying, but in checking its pulse, we're worried about the wrong patient.

Wired proclaimed the death of the web browser in 1997, when push technology was going to take over the world, and again in 2010. Now it's The Wall Street Journal's turn.

Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims on Monday lamented the fact that people are spending more time using native mobile apps than using the web. Mims cites figures from the analytics firm Flurry indicating that, on smartphones, people spend 86% of their time in native apps and 14% of their time using the web.

Daring Fireball's John Gruber responded with a counter-argument, insisting that the rise of native apps has brought more innovation, rather than diminished it. Gruber contends that Mims conflates client software and "the Web," insisting that the web is more than what gets rendered in a web browser.

[Does control matter if the government is watching everything you do on the web? Read Tech Heavyweights Push For Surveillance Reform.]

"If you expand your view of 'the Web' from merely that which renders inside the confines of a Web browser to instead encompass all network traffic sent over HTTP/S, the explosive growth of native mobile apps is just another stage in the growth of the Web," Gruber wrote.

But Gruber is asserting a definition of the web that suits his argument. It's a good argument and fair in its analysis, but it's not the aspect of the web that Mims is talking about. It glosses over the issue of control.

The most significant point that Mims makes has to do with the consequences of native apps. "But underneath all that convenience is something sinister: the end of the very openness that allowed Internet companies to grow into some of the most powerful or important companies of the 21st century," Mims wrote.

Gruber refutes Mims's example about the problems of gatekeeping by noting that Amazon's iPhone app can be used to purchase physical goods without paying Apple's 30% fee for in-app purchases. But that's the refutation of a poorly chosen example. It doesn't address how native app developers are beholden to platform owners, particularly in the iOS ecosystem. It doesn't address Mims's citation of venture capitalist Chris Dixon's argument that Apple's 30% fee presents a challenge to those who would create businesses that rely on app sales or in-app purchases.

It's worth asking whether the 30% fee for app sales and for digital goods sales in mobile apps -- set by Apple and adopted by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft for their stores -- hinders innovation. It's worth asking whether it's a reasonable and fair fee, particularly when Google's Chrome Web Store gets by with a 5% transaction fee. If revenue potential drives innovation, think how much more innovation we'd see if the Apple tax were lowered to 5%.

Native apps, as Gruber says, "are superior clients to open Internet services." That's true from a development point of view: Native app development is easier than mobile web app development. And it's true from a usability view: Native apps tend to have better touch-optimized interfaces. But it's not necessarily true in terms of the user's ability to control the app.

The problem with native apps is that, unlike desktop web browsers, they do not provide users with the ability to control app content. For publishers, this is a benefit. But we're talking about users, not publishers; it's the user's phone, after all, not anyone else's. A person viewing content in a desktop browser (or on a jailbroken iPhone or an Android device with an ad-blocking app installed outside of Google Play) can modify that browser to block ads or otherwise alter the content. A person viewing content in a native app does not have this option unless it has been explicitly allowed.

So in terms of control, native apps are not superior clients. They are clearly inferior to browsers that users can alter through extensions and add-ons. And control is important. Control is what separates the Internet from TV.

Control is an issue that extends beyond the user's ability to alter content to the ecosystem owner's ability to censor.

Writing for Slate, Will Oremus acknowledges that Mims has a point about lack of openness in the native app ecosystem. "Mims and Dixon are right that this poses challenges for openness and innovation, especially when a company like Apple wields so much control over its app ecosystem."

Apple's control of content in iOS apps is too much. If Apple wishes to continue to censor apps based on content, it should license third-party iOS stores or at least adopt Google Play's less fussy content policy. There's no reason native apps should be treated any differently from books or films when it comes to lawful content. There's no reason Apple should be able to reject an app with lawful content. With web apps, this isn't an issue; no permission is required to publish a web app.

The issue isn't so much that the web is dying; it's that too many people prefer autocratic convenience over the web's messy democracy.

Last month, Tim Bray, formerly an Android evangelist with Google, framed the "web is dying" argument a bit differently. As reported by CNET, Bray's concern isn't so much about the web dying as about the growing gap between native app development tools and web app development tools.

Speaking at the a Goto Conference for software developers in Aarhus, Denmark, Bray urged audience members not to forget that the web is the only major computing platform that isn't backed by a specific vendor.

"I want an Internet where people, like people in this room, can write beautiful software and post beautiful software and have people use beautiful software without having to ask anybody's permission," Bray said.

To make that happen, those developing web technologies need to raise the level of their game. The companies committed to native development have taken control and they're not inclined to give it back.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Ninja
11/29/2014 | 1:23:54 PM
What about Bob
To the average person, accessing the web via app is all the rage.  Most are happy to surrender control (and privacy) for the sake of convenience, however, I would argue that hardcore net users such as myself (and there are a lot more of us than either side of this argument is willing to concede) won't be giving up the control we have with a browser in favor of being restricted/limited by a mobile device app instead.  Funny how both sides haven't bothered to include this group into their for/against arguments. 
I give
I give,
User Rank: Moderator
11/19/2014 | 9:19:17 PM
Re: A milepost on the path to user loss of control
Big BELL was broken up, but not turned into a public utility like the Post Office once was and really still is.  The local municipal phone companies were swallowed up.  Power and gas utilities that are owned and operated by local govenments certainly less prevalent than in the beginning.  Generally I assume, water and sewage, and in some cases trash removal is still provided by government entities.

But not newspapers, and not telephony incl. DSL, no broadcast, satellite nor how is it that The Internet/Web is somehow unique in terms of need for a free access or owner of control.  I don't know that any bookstore is required to sell every book that is published.  Okay, fight about the content your public library provides.  But until there are taxpayer funded ISP's and content management producers/managers for the WEB, i don't see any legal/Constituional basis for "net neutrality", whether I like it or not.  If you develop taxpayer funded fully self reliant web-delivered education systems, as part of the public school system, I suspect it would be an advancement over the currnet system.  So focus on that.

Maybe the ability to "capitalize" on citizins willingness to pay money for convenience while yielding control and probably limting competition in the long term is the price of freedom, so to speak.  Freedom of choice does not mean the choices available are beneficial to all, nor that if any of those available which were beneficial would be those freely chosen would be those that are beneficial to the grater good.  To date government run services of any kind may be beter than none in some very rare cases, and certainly a degree of regulation is warranted in many areas as well.  But as far as communication and entertainment channels (that is what we are talking about here), the idea of government control of those areas is an artifact of history.  Is it not?

Frankly I find the protestations of Google, MS, Apple, etc. about NSA/Legal impositions to be less than honorable.  I happen to think those outfits are a greater threat than the likes of the NSA, FBI, etc., despite past abuses.  Those guys would sell their souls to China and Russia if they thought they were getting more info for their control of the world mind.  Pick your poison folks.  $'s, Governments, or private bad actors - hidden or open alike






Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
11/19/2014 | 5:52:10 PM
A milepost on the path to user loss of control
Wish I had said that: "...too many people prefer autocratic convenience over the web's messy democracy." And I wish the head said: Web Isn't Dying, But User Control Is. As each day slips by, we are trading convenience for more and more vendor control over our personal information and activity.
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