The latest in its series of discussions about the future of the internet, the Pew Internet Project released a new report this morning that wades into the mobile “apps vs. web” debate. It’s positioned as a metaphor or surrogate for a larger argument about the battle of platforms and the internet’s future:
It is in part a debate about the future of the personal computer vs. smaller, portable mobile devices. It is also central to the debate about the environment in which people gather and share information.
Pew asked a number of “big thinkers” to respond to two provocative opposing statements about the shape of the internet at the end of the decade, and indicate the one with which they most agreed.
The following are the two opposing viewpoints:
Apps dominate: In 2020, most people will prefer to use specific applications (apps) accessible by Internet connection to accomplish most online work, play, communication, and content creation. The ease of use and perceived security and quality-assurance characteristics of apps will be seen as superior when compared with the open Web. Most industry innovation and activity will be devoted to apps development and updates, and use of apps will occupy the majority of technology users’ time. There will be a widespread belief that the World Wide Web is less important and useful than in the past and apps are the dominant factor in people’s lives.
Web dominates: In 2020, the World Wide Web is stronger than ever in users’ lives. The open Web continues to thrive and grow as a vibrant place where most people do most of their work, play, communication, and content creation. Apps accessed through iPads, Kindles, Nooks, smartphones, Droid devices, and their progeny—the online tools GigaOM referred to as “the anti- Internet”—will be useful as specialized options for a finite number of information and entertainment functions. There will be a widespread belief that, compared to apps, the Web is more important and useful and is the dominant factor in people’s lives.
The pro-web view beat out the pro-apps position 59 to 35 responses. The prognosticators in the report then elaborate their rationales for why the web or apps will triumph. In addition to these two camps there are a number of people who argue (quite sensibly) that apps and the web will peacefully coexist.
As the chart above indicates, comScore has found that penetration of the mobile browser and mobile apps in the US market is roughly the same.
In the Pew report, many of the people supporting a “web will prevail” position are doing so for philosophical or abstract reasons. Here’s a representative comment from Robert Cannon, Senior Counsel for internet law at the FCC:
The World Wide Web model of an open platform available to all innovators and accessible to all consumers and creators—that has a low barrier to entry, low costs of development, and does not require permission from the core network (or firm) to add a new innovation—this will continue to be the compelling model. The World Wide Web may evolve significantly, but the core design of open and scalable will make it the compelling solution
The apps-will-dominate partisans cited the improved user experience, simplicity and clarity of apps vs the mobile web. They largely avoided the “open vs. closed” discussion entirely.
Some quoted in the report argue that HTML5 will play an increasingly important role and once again make the browser the center of gravity on the mobile internet by bridging the functionality gap between mobile sites and apps.
Although the report doesn’t address this, the apps vs. web discussion is another way of having the iOS vs. Android debate.
While the apps vs. mobile web argument does matter to marketers and developers, most users don’t think the same way. Indeed, a surprising number of people couldn’t tell you the difference between an app and a mobile website anyway.
As one respondent put it, “People never cared about the Web vs. apps and devices . . . They want free stuff, entertainment, and services when they want them, and on the device they have in front of them.”