Monday, June 20, 2011

Do we really need an app for that?

In his keynote at the Apple World Wide Developers' Conference earlier this month, Steve Jobs mentioned that the number of apps available for download from the App Store now numbers more than 425,000, with more than 14 billion apps having been downloaded by users of Apple's popular iOS devices.

Those are astounding numbers. But before we lift our glasses in a toast to Apple, we need to ask what the app model is doing to the way we use the internet. Over the past 17 years we have seen the world wide web evolve from plain gray pages with lots of blue underlined hyperlinks (remember when we used to call them that?) to attractive, feature-rich, interactive websites capable of displaying enormous amounts of information and entertainment.

Now, the rise of Apple's iOS mobile devices is causing many web publishers to all but replace their websites with apps. No, websites aren't going to disappear anytime soon. But a growing number of companies are diverting resources that used to go to their websites to their own apps instead, leading one technology venture capitalist to claim, "Apple is killing the World Wide Web!" I think he is right.

I have no problem with an app for a mobile device being software—a program that actually runs on the device. After all "app" is simply an abbreviation for an application, despite Apple's attempt to trademark the term. Word processing, spreadsheets, graphics programs, video viewers, presentation software—no problem. Even games are fine. But when an app starts to become little more than simply a way of taking you to a company's specially designed website (which is what browser bookmarks are for) then I have a problem with that.

Yet almost any magazine, newspaper, or media publisher of any size now has its own app. Of course every company that can manage it wants a precious piece of screen real estate on users' mobile devices, so one can hardly blame them. But it gets worse:
iPad readers no longer have much choice about how they’re able to access NY Post’s content. When readers try to access the NY Post’s website on their iPad via Safari, the site is blocked and they get redirected to a page for downloading the app. Basically, the New York Post is trying to get people who want to read its content on their iPads’ browser to purchase the paper’s $2 app and pay subsequent subscription fees.

The New York Times and other newspapers are rumored to be adopting this model as well. Of course, publishers can charge subscriptions to use their websites; and if they want to do so that is their business. But the app model is encouraging web publishers to adopt a proprietary interface that compartmentalizes the internet and to gouge consumers at the same time. This basically amounts to locking up the World Wide Web, turning the once-open information highway into a bunch of gated communities.

Yes, Apple could just be killing the World Wide Web as we have known it.