A few months ago, Wired magazine ran an obituary of the Web on their blood orange cover. It’s bold, controversial and is arguably based on flawed data.
Nonetheless, the article highlights the trend that users are increasingly consuming services via native apps, rather than via the browser. Instead of (or in addition to) browsing, people are downloading & installing. For better or worse, hundreds of millions of users have taken on this behavior.
On the other side of the equation, developers face a behavioral change of their own. They now have to operate in environments that are controlled end-to-end by platform providers. This means new languages, non-agile cycles, bureaucracies, and everything you love/hate about compiled software. Worse of all, there are more than one of these platforms: iOS, Android, Blackberry, Meego/Symbian, WebOS, Windows 7, BREW and Samsung Bada.
Platform providers call it Differentiation. MBAs call it Fragmentation. Developers call it WTF.
If this reminds you of the old PC era, then your memory serves you half-right. Back then, there was effectively one platform called Windows, so no cross-platform issues. You’re also free to innovate on Windows, so no bureaucracies. Things weren’t as bad. But somehow, when this newfangled thing called the Web came along, software started migrating to the web in droves. Clearly, the web has more to offer than just an open and cross-platform environment. Well, as we all came to appreciate, the web is also inherently easy, accessible, updated, collaborative, mashable, shared, loosely-coupled, and of course, social. These qualities are hard to achieve on platforms that are proprietary, closed, autocratic and supportive of only compiled software that are statically coupled to them.
If developers took to the web in the PC era, where disparate platforms and freedom of expression weren’t issues, it should even be more brain-dead to do so today. Mobile browsers have largely standardized on WebKit, which means HTML5/CSS3 is ready, able and consistent on disparate platforms. So then, why isn’t anything interesting happening on the mobile web?
Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The new ‘touch web’ ecosystem is still in its infancy and lacks tools and services that help developers flourish and thrive. We need the equivalent of everything that iOS provides and more. We need tools and services built to address idiosyncracies in the new app-centric world. The market is certainly aware of it, and we’re starting to see companies, projects and initiatives sprout up to take on the task.
At the end of the day, user behavior shouldn’t have to change between native and web apps. The browser does not necessarily have to be front-and-center in the user experience. It could just be a behind-the-scenes virtual machine, transparently powering apps on multiple device platforms today and any new ones in the future. Like I said earlier, it’s still early, but things are evolving rapidly. It won’t be too long before we see the first iFart app on the web.
The Web is far from dead. The Web remains the most widely adopted, accessible, open and powerful platform ever created.