The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations (for the Web)

November 18, 2014 1:36 PM
The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations (for the Web)

Yesterday, my column on why the Web is dying and how we’ll miss it inspired some especially thoughtful responses. Or I should say rejoinders; just about everyone who linked to the piece disagreed with both its thesis and particulars.
They’re provocative, and in the spirit of thoughtful debate it’s worth rounding them up as a sort of snapshot of both how we’re spending time with our (increasingly mobile) devices, and what it is we think of when we say “Web.” It’s an increasingly difficult term to define.
But before I get to the roundup, here’s a point I want to emphasize, which I think no one addressed in their responses to the column: The dream of the Web becoming a place for “apps” is imperiled, and it’s what I think endangers the Web long term, as it leads to a lack of investment by developers of both Web apps and the Web browsers that run them. And that, in turn, endangers the parts of the Web that are still very functional — the parts delivering information, documents, news and certain retail experiences.

One example: Google Maps. It’s available in at least three formats: a desktop Web app, a mobile Web app and a native mobile app. The first is functional, and the second nearly unusable compared to the last. The better apps become, the more users will demand them on every device they use, mobile or not. As those who build the technology we enjoy focus on the app experience, the “Web app” experience diminishes, and with it the drive by the world’s most powerful tech companies to push the Web forward.
Eventually, this will have consequences even for sites that are mostly just delivering documents (i.e. pages), which is what the Web has always been best at.
Now to the roundup:
“The web is alive and well” — Zach Seward at Quartz
“The assumption is that… the time when people are inside native apps doesn’t count as using the web.
To see the mistake here, just look at the most popular mobile app supposedly leading this turn away from the web: Facebook. A substantial portion of Facebook content offers links to other websites. Tapping them opens a browser within the app, and there you are, on the web.
“The Web Is Dying! Wait, How Are You Reading This?” — Will Oremus at Slate
“A closer look at the numbers reveals that the Web is still growing. Comscore finds that time spent on the mobile Web grew 17 percent between June 2013 and June 2014. True, app usage grew faster—52 percent, by Comscore’s reckoning. But as Quartz’s Seward points out, “the overall pie is growing,” and mobile apps have been “largely additive to the online experience.”
“Native Apps Are Part of the Web” — John Gruber at Daring Fireball
“How has the rise of native mobile apps been anything but a renaissance of innovation? […] The pre-mobile web was largely about consumption for most people: reading articles, watching videos, buying stuff. In today’s world, everyone is creating and sharing their own content — everything from photos to videos to their thoughts and observations. Mims claims native mobile apps are “bad for innovation and the consumer” while consumers around the world are doing remarkably innovative things using native mobile apps.”
“The Web, Still Dying After All These Years” — MG Siegler at Medium
“So the problem most people seem to have is that they either can’t wrap their heads around this concept: you are using the web, you’re just using it in an app. Or they worry about the app model being destructive to the open nature of the web. Maybe. I just think it’s cyclical. AOL begets World Wide Web begets Facebook and so on.”
“Why the Web Still Matters for Writing” — Matt Mullenweg of WordPress, writing in April and quoted yesterday by Mathew Ingram of Gigaom
“There is no question that apps are here to stay, and are a superior interaction model for some uses. But the web is like water: it fills in all the gaps between things like gaming and social with exactly what any one particular user wants. […] Let the water flow to exactly where it’s needed! That’s the power of the web, and now that a computer is with us in so many more places, we need that flexibility more than ever.”
But one other issue is worth emphasizing: Many wrote that the Web is simply turning into apps, as if that were a values-neutral phenomenon. But apps don’t run in any browser, on any device, as Web services must. Handing control over what can appear on our phones is an enormous tax on developer time and companies’ resources, at best, thanks to the necessity of creating apps for every platform. At worst it’s a concession that the democratizing force that is the Web should now give way to walled gardens that threatened it in the past. That the Web won in the era of Firefox vs. Microsoft, or AOL vs. openness, is no guarantee it will win today.
Christopher Mims

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