The Recline of the Mobile Web

I’ve seen much chicken-belittling of the future of the Web on mobiles, be it ruminations on its decline or wishful thinking. Regardless of the intent, such opinion pieces always point to the same factoids:

  • people are using apps on their mobiles more than they use the Web
  • mobile is the future

I don’t contest either of these claims. I just think they’re irrelevant.

These articles relegate the future Web to a role as a repository of “long-tail content” (their catchword for diverse or niche content) or as a try-before-you-buy for wanna-be apps.

Sometimes these writers have good intentions: they are making a rallying cry for the Web, and that’s a fine motivation. Sometimes they are just trying to stir up controversy or get noticed. Either way, I don’t think this message is quite so deserving of the attention it gets, and I’m puzzled that this same message seems so recyclable. Pardon me while I trash it instead.

For a starters, there will always be more niche content than there will be mainstream content. I think the growth of the Web over the past 25 years has showed the dramatic diversity of expression, collaboration, and community that could (and will) only thrive in a niche-friendly ecosystem. People like mainstream content, but they love stuff that only interests them and their niche community. So, I don’t see anything wrong with serving this multitude of niches; the Web is a niche that can’t be scratched.

And when you look at the “traditional” Web of documents and data, the Web has gotten much more sophisticated; it’s far easier to find the information you want now. Search engines have gotten so good at extracting useful bits of data from websites to present on their results page, I frequently (yes, guilty) don’t even visit the primary source pages when I’m looking for some basic information (e.g. when a movie was made or some more significant date in history, or the name of a song based on some lyrics, or other burning questions); that content wouldn’t exist, though, without the variety of pages feeding the aggregators. And when I follow a link from my Twitter or Facebook app, I read the article or blog post in a mobile app called a “browser”. So, while I don’t spend as much time on the Web as I do in apps, it’s more a mark of the improvement of the Web, both in creating content and in helping me find and consume it.

But let’s pretend that this wide and lasting appeal isn’t enough. Let’s look at current and trending usage on mobiles.

Once upon a time, mobile phones were primarily used to talk to other people. How quaint. Now, most mobile Internet traffic (by volume) is video; and even that is going to embrace Web tech as they enable outbound links and inbound annotations. Will it matter if it’s in the browser itself, versus a specialized media viewer, if it’s still using Web tech?

Regarding games (that bellwether of app trends), I saw Brendan Eich’s keynote at Fluent Conf 2014 a few weeks ago, and he was showcasing a first-person shooter in WebGL, running in the browser. He was illustrating how powerful and performant the Web has gotten, but I could only think, “That’s not the Web, that’s just an executable  runtime.” Sure, it’s running in the browser, but where are the links? Where is the API? Where is the human interaction? Show me that same app, but include a WebRTC videochat line, and then I’ll start to get interested.

Yeah, my own mobile use dramatically favors apps: apps like Candy Crush Saga. But when I want something more substantive than a time-waster, the browser is there for me. It’s not the quantity of time that someone spend on their phone that’s the telling factor, it’s the quality of engagement. It doesn’t matter that Candy Crush Saga isn’t made with Web tech (assuming it’s not); there’s nothing Web-like about such games or apps. But if that really worries you, yeah, WebGL (and Canvas and SVG) will get you there too, in due course.

It wasn’t so long ago that Flash apps were going to kill the Web (remember Flash?), and many of those same developers moved from Flash to native mobile apps. They have a niche; they have a business model. But it’s not good for their customers, and it’s not going to kill the Web.

You want some trends?

  • Many installed “apps” are really just hybrid Web content containers (framing HTML5 content); many others repackage Web content in a custom format (Facebook? Twitter?), and would lose users if they didn’t also publish it on the Web
  • WebRTC will soon decentralize video chat away from centralized apps like Skype
  • Up to a few years ago, ebooks were exclusively proprietary; now they are increasingly EPUB, which is just HTML5 repackaged (and IBM recently announced they are moving to EPUB-first over PDF)
  • Almost every bit of functionality that the mobile has, from geolocation to local storage to camera and microphone to battery life and mobile strength, is undergoing standardization for the open Web Platform

Given enough time (and the Web has time), there will be near-perfect parity between native mobile features and Web Platform features… except that the Web Platform will have everything the native platform has, and it will also have all the features and content of the Web. Unlike walled gardens, where these features grow fast and wild, the Web is moving more deliberately; features are developed more slowly because we are taking the best of breed, and making them interoperable across all platforms and devices, so you don’t have to make and maintain 4 (or more?) versions of your app. The Web advances in periodic waves of experimentation and stabilization, across many different fronts; if it seems to you that the Web is resting, it’s probably just priming for a surge, and you probably aren’t looking closely enough in the right places.

Yes, we need to work as fast and as hard as we can to achieve that parity; no, we can’t afford to get lazy and rest on our laurels. Yes, we need to make sure that webapp and content creation are as easy and powerful as for native apps. Yes, as Chris Dixon points out, centralization and concentrated influence are serious problems we need to combat. But I don’t think we have to worry about the very short term.

I think people are inadvertently reversing the underlying trend. Mobiles have always been a vendor-controlled ecosystem; they aren’t squeezing out the open Web, the open Web is seeping into the cracks in their defenses, like water. That leak will become a torrent; that trickle will become a tide.

So, if you’re on the side of the open Web, lean back, relax, and enjoy the sunset of locked-down systems, sinking into the tide. We have work to do come dawn.

2 thoughts on “The Recline of the Mobile Web

  1. Boris Smus, a very sharp Googler, linked to this post with a clever reframing of the issue that is absolutely worth a read:

    Comments don’t seem to be enabled on his site, so I’ll reply here. I’m not sure I’m as idealistic as he suggests, but “Web idealist” is hardly the worst thing someone’s called me.

    Fundamentally, I agree with his point that the future holds a lot of different, specialized browsers. He only alludes to it, but I don’t expect the Web of Google Glass (or other wearables) to be primarily visual; I think it will likely be audio-first, and we should continue to build standards around that medium, as well as the visual stack we have now (HTML, CSS, SVG, MathML). Other wearables, like watches, might include a RSVP (rapid serial visual presentation) mode (like Spritz or Spreeder), and we’ll need to address that as well (like, how do you meaningfully style a hyperlink in a fast-moving stream of text).

    I just don’t see any of that as different than the Web. My idea of the Web includes the traditional stack of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, but it’s not limited to that; I think it will continue to be relevant to improve those technologies, but we will also be able to adapt to new modalities. My idea of browsers includes traditional browsers, like desktop or mobile browsers, but it’s not limited to those; I think screenreaders, ebook readers, hybrid apps, and voice-only browsers are also first-class Web clients.

    Boris’ 3 points on preserving the Web (i.e., serialize any content as a URL, open that URL in the right user context mode, and give the user the options on how to consume that content) is a really good start on this sort of thinking. I agree with him that we need to keep adapting the Web, and also adapting ourselves to realize that Web.

    We can’t rely on the Web being “too big to fail”–we need to make it too inclusive to fail.

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