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.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

November 19, 2014

6 Min Read

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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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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

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 master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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