The success of apps makes the web stronger than ever

27 January 2015

Jamie Brown

Jamie Brown


The ‘success of the app has become something used to claim that the web is dying, dying, and dead. Some, like Mims in this Wall Street Journal piece, claim that the app is directly responsible for the heralded death of the web.

Rather than a being a win for users, there is something “sinister” at the heart of the success of the app: “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”.

This claim couldn’t be more wrong, and I’d like to explain why.

The browser’s chequered history

There’s a simple misunderstanding here of how the web operates which makes such a claim difficult to uphold. Going back to the early days of the web, the humble browser was near enough the only way people used the web to display webpages. In the days of the browser wars, compatibility issues plagued users’ experience of the web; some pages would only work in Internet Explorer, some pages would require Netscape. The experience was fragmented, and fundamentally broken for users.

It wasn’t any better for developers too, as different versions of websites had to be developed for different browsers. The front-end in this case – the way we viewed the content on the web through a browser – was a terrible experience for everyone, and it was no surprise that modern browsers such as Chrome soon became the default browser for people browsing the web.

Proprietary browser plugins such as Flash and Silverlight, often required to display content on sites (such as video), is fast disappearing or has disappeared entirely on some sites, as superior technologies like HTML5 replace the older ones. Today, any modern browser can display pretty much any website, but the problem, some people like Mims in the WSJ claim, is that we’re going back on ourselves and entering a new closed era of the web, controlled by apps.

The multi-layered web

The problem with Mims’ argument is that the web isn’t what you think it might be. The HTML rendering you see in the browser is not the web. The webpage you see in Chrome is just one way of viewing what the web offers, through an HTML rendering delivered to your screen. The native app is just an alternative client to the HTML display of the same backend HTTP protocol that has powered the web from the very beginning.

The app is a new layer to the web, not a replacement; the web is how any internet enabled app works, but not a replacement for it. Instead of running a webapp like Facebook in your browser, these days we largely run apps within an OS which offers the additional advantages native apps bring to the table, such as speed, responsiveness, and the powerful features that today’s mobile hardware can deliver.

Apps are not a walled garden, either. Mims claims:

"Take that most essential of activities for e-commerce: accepting credit cards. When made its debut on the Web, it had to pay a few percentage points in transaction fees. But Apple takes 30% of every transaction conducted within an app sold through its app store, and “very few businesses in the world can withstand that haircut,” says Chris Dixon, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz".

This is completely false, unsurprisingly. iPhone and iPad users can complete purchases through the free Amazon app, and won’t be paying a penny to Apple. What Apple charges 30% for are purchases of in-app specific content, such as new levels for a game, digital content, or app expansions. Any business which retails through the web, Android, or iOS, is treated the same in either case, and if they’re weren’t, the organisation would no doubt move to doing business in a more preferable way. Just taking iOS apps, Apple has paid over $20 billion to app developers, creating a successful market which users and developers love. It’s growing at an incredible rate, with half of that being paid out over the past 18 months, and that’s just iOS.

Apps are the inevitable

Fundamentally, the app is the next stage on from HTML for delivering a superior user experience. If it’s not the next stage on yet, although it is certainly the most popular way of accessing the services and content the web delivers. Facebook’s ‘biggest mistake’, according to Mark Zuckerberg himself, was betting on universal HTML5 as opposed to native technologies. Before Facebook started again from scratch and rebuilt its apps without HTML5 just a few years ago, the Facebook app was slow, clunky, and simplistic. Users hated it, and browsing Facebook in a mobile browser was a much better experience. Native won, and native still wins virtually every time.

It’s the experience which counts

There’s one other argument that can be heard, which is that coding for one platform – HTML – is easier for developers, as the code base is simplified and cross-platform compatibility is maximised. The problem here is that apps should written to give users the best possible experience, not the developers writing them. If that means developers will have to maintain more than one version of an app – both Android and iOS for example – powerful features and a great user experience can be delivered to all far more easily, and this is not to mention the fact that many features just aren’t possible to deliver using only HTML5: that’s often where Flash used to come in, and when it did a poor job, especially on mobile, it was scrapped by Adobe. HTML5 is an important step for enabling the web, but it certainly isn’t the only or last step in that journey.

This is because the web delivers content, but isn’t the content itself. Exposing information freely using the same networking protocol it used at the time of its inception is the web’s great power. When the web is enabling a retailer to sell to consumers on mobile or a tablet, a front end in the form of a native app is likely to be far superior. When the web is enabling a music streaming service, a beautifully designed, integrated native app is likely to win every time. And when the web is enabling the dissemination of information freely to people everywhere in all forms and place – humble websites, native apps, TVs, and space included – the web wins as one of humanity’s greatest success stories of all time. The web is stronger than ever, and the success of the app is just one stage along the web’s exciting journey.

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