People love a good story, no matter what form of content it is they're consuming. Journalists, especially those who cover the technology industry, like to apply the same elements that make up an attractive narrative to their writing, so what most people get today is a tale of two or three competitors, the hurdles they have to overcome to deliver the solution they've envisioned and marketed, and then the demise of the one who couldn't execute properly. No matter how enticing it may be to remove the complexity of the battle for consumer's hearts, minds and wallets in order to make the story easily digestible, reality is often quite different. Take for instance the current obsession with mobile applications and how they're going to eclipse the internet as the delivery platform of choice for services and software.
When software in a browser became usable, and you'll have to go back many years to remember this, it was the release of Google Mail and Google Maps, in 2004 and 2005 respectively, that showed people just how much was able to be done with nothing more than AJAX and HTML. Remember those buzz words? Remember how often you heard that Microsoft would perish thanks to the slew of small new companies who were more nimble than the Redmond Beast, and more attentive to customers needs? Last month Microsoft reported their fiscal Q1 2011 financial results and they had they broke a new record in terms of revenue: $16.20 billion. How about them apples?
Also during 2005 Nokia announced that all Symbian powered devices, from S60 3rd Edition onwards, would come with a full WebKit based browser. It was hailed as a revolutionary decision. Two years before the iPhone even came out, the minds of Espoo recognized that in order to build a complete software experience you can't just focus on trying to get developers to build for your platform, you need to bundle one of the most popular applications to ever come out in the last 20 years: the internet browser.
Back then Americans frankly didn't care about mobile services and internet on the go. Why should they have? Before the iPhone many didn't even know that you could do things on your mobile like browse the web or use maps. It wasn't their fault, operators were grossly overcharging for data and not subsidizing the high end devices that Europeans and Asians were enjoying. But why are the Americans even important? Because, as sad as I am to admit this, they build the services that the world uses. From Amazon to Zoho and everything in between American companies take the lead on the web. With little to no Americans carrying devices capable of taking advantage of the huge range of service offerings, there was no need to invest in, or even care about, mobile. So here you've got Nokia, who thought remarkably far ahead into the future by choosing to bundle a browser in their smartphones half a decade ago, struggling to get mass appeal because the hardware from that era was simply too limited to have a decent browsing experience. Then Apple comes along.
The iPhone is called the Jesus Phone by some because it's erroneously believed to have magical powers. I call it the Jesus Phone because just like the history of time is recorded in either B.C. (Before Christ) or A.D. (Latin for "In the Year of Our Lord"), so too does the mobile industry lump time into before the iPhone (B.I) came out, and after (A.I). When Steve Jobs got on stage in January 2007 and announced the iPhone, he said it wasn't one product, but three. The first iPhone was a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a mobile phone, and it also had a web browser. That's it. Apps came along shortly after, and that's when things started getting interesting.
Indie software developers can't shut up about the App Store, and they have good reason. Getting to keep 70% of what you make off an application, and making purchases as simple as clicking one button, is why devs are in love with Apple's platform. Period. At some point in your life your mom told you not to feed stray animals because they'll follow you home. With the App Store Apple not only fed a handful of animals, but yelled from the roof tops that there's plenty for everyone. It doesn't matter that the notification system works some days, while others it doesn't. It doesn't matter that "multitasking" isn't really multitasking. With the iPhone, people are putting food on their table and feeding their family. That's why it's "better" than the web will ever be, but will this always be the case?
People say that because of Apple and the App Store the web is no longer an attractive medium. Over the summer Wired even declared that the web was dead. Really? If that's the case then why does Apple keep on improving their browser with every release of iOS? Did you know that the latest release of iOS, version 4.2.1, includes support for the HTML5 WebSockets protocol and that accelerometer and gyroscope support have been added to the DeviceOrientation API? Sure, there's no "buy now" button for mobile websites, but that doesn't stop Apple from trying to keep their browser as up to date as possible. They want mobile developers to make their website "optimized for iPhone" in much the same way that early websites only worked on Internet Explorer. There's nothing to be gained in terms of revenue from those web developers, but instead from users who elect to buy Apple hardware to get the best experience possible while on the go.
RIM, Nokia, Microsoft, they're not stupid. Scratch that, maybe Nokia is since the browser they bundled with Symbian^3 devices is at least 2x slower than the latest 3rd party Opera Mobile browser. They all know that they need a best in class browser, but they also know that they need to feed developers. Problem is neither of those companies can multitask, and while one year they may make a marginal improvement to either their developer platform or web browser, they don't work at improving both at the same time. That's slowly starting to change.
The internet didn't kill television, we just watch television on our computers now. Television didn't kill the cinema, going to the movies has just transitioned to becoming another social event. Television didn't kill radio, well ... maybe it did, but radio didn't kill live performances. Software and services delivered in a browser didn't kill entrenched players like Microsoft. You get where I'm going with this. Applications will not kill the web because unlike Apple's computer sales, which are growing faster than the PC market, the smartphone market is growing faster than the iPhone/iPad/iPod touch platform. Several analyst firms have noted that in as little as three years Google's Android is going to be the number one platform, and it already is in some parts of Asia. Will developers still make Apps for iOS? Of course, because Apple users spend more money and there's research to prove this.
Apps are the talk of the town because of games, so let's be frank, everything else can mostly be done in a browser, and Apple, plus everyone else who builds devices, knows this, which is why they're pouring money hand over fist at making their browser the best. Many of the advantages that Apps used to have, such as offline capabilities, access to hardware like the camera, and push notifications, are now matched by browsers that are improving by leaps and bounds year after year. The one thing that Apps enable that the web doesn't is a built in payment method. With mobile payments set to become a bill deal in 2011 with near field communication (NFC), you bet that buying things from a website rendered on a screen that fits in your pocket will be as easy as it is now to buy a song off iTunes.
They'll always be a place where Apps are better than the native web, but the increasing importance of the browser, both because it's the one platform that ties everything together, and because the increased fragmentation the smartphone market will have as time goes on, will make Apps less important than they are now.
Image by Cristiano Betta