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A Report Card on Web 2 and the App Economy

By - March 18, 2011

As I noted earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to speak at a GM conference today. I was asked to peer into the future of the “app world,” and deliver any divinations I might discover.

I like a challenge like this, as it forces me to weave any number of slender threads of my current thinking into a more robust and compact narrative.

Below is an updated version of a slide I presented today. As I thought through why I have a negative gut reaction to the world of apps as they currently stand, I realized it’s because they violate most of the original principles of what makes the web so great. And when I thought about what those principles are, I realized that a list already existed – in the opening presentation Tim O’Reilly and I gave at the first ever Web 2 Summit, in 2004.

Tim codified those principles in his seminal paper “What Is Web 2,” first published in 2005. For my GM speech, I extracted the core values which comprise the underpinnings of Web 2, then graded them in two categories: The Web, and The App Economy. For each I have a check or an X, depending on progress made since we originally outlined those principles seven years ago. A check means that, in essence, our industry has solidified its commitment to the principle, in particular as it relates to the most important party: The person using the web or the app. An X means we’re not there yet (and perhaps we won’t ever get there).

I think the results speak for themselves. After the image (and a quick break), I’ll offer some thoughts on each.   

web 2 report card.png

* The Web Is A Platform. There is no doubt that this is true on the open web (by this I mean the legacy HTML web). Anyone can put up a site, without approval by anyone else. This is simply not true in the Apple app world, though it’s more true for Android. I could write further pages on what it means to be a platform – certainly iOS and Android are platforms – but what we meant by “The Web Is A Platform” went deeper than the idea of a closed ecosystem controlled by one company. The beauty of the Web was that anyone could innovate on top of it, without permission. This is simply not true in the App World, for now.

* You Control Your Own Data. I have a very long post in me about this, and I spoke about it at length today at GM. But suffice to say, I don’t think either the web or app world have checked this box. But I see it as coming, very soon, projects like The Locker Project and others are hastening it. It’s my belief that soon consumers will demand value from their data, and that the web will be a place where that demand is met. Apps? I’m not so sure they’ll lead here. But they will have to follow.

* Harness Collective Intelligence. I believe the web has delivered on this concept, in spades. But I believe App World creates islands of disconnected experiences, most of which fail to share APIs, data structures, or insights.

* Data Is the New Intel Inside. I agree with this concept, which is truly Tim’s innovation. But I don’t believe either the Web or App World have delivered this power to us as consumers. As with “You Control Your Own Data”, I think the Web will lead, and Apps will follow.

* End of the Software Release Cycle. The Web has totally checked this box – when was the last you checked what version of Google you were using? Meanwhile, we still have to update our apps….

* Lightweight Programming. The web has excelled here. Apps, not so much. I have a lot of hope for Telehash, however.

* Software Above Level of A Single Device. When was the last time you wondered whether the web worked on a particular device? Oh yeah, when you tried to use Flash on an Apple product….enough said.

* Rich User Experiences. This is where apps kick the Web’s ass. And man, it’s a compelling ass kicking, so compelling we may be willing to give up all the other principles of Web 2 just to have a great experience. But I believe, in the end, we don’t have to compromise. We can have our App chocolate, and get our Web peanut butter to boot.

What do you think?


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16 thoughts on “A Report Card on Web 2 and the App Economy

  1. I disagree that “apps kick the Web’s ass” in rich user experiences. Especially in desktop browsers, web apps like Google Maps are as rich as any native app. Native apps are arguably ahead on mobile devices, but frameworks like Sencha Touch are closing the gap. The one thing that could keep them from closing the gap completely is willful obstructionism by device makers (e.g., http://gigaom.com/2011/03/15/report-apple-sandbags-home-screen-web-apps/).

    I generally agree with you. Just don’t give native apps more credit than they deserve.

  2. As King Steve might say, one more thing.

    A big difference between the web and app world, and a major reason why developers have flocked to the latter, is that app world offers the masses one-stop shopping for all their software needs, whereas web apps are spread out all over the web. At SXSWi last week, it was driven home to me that for many people, doing something new with their phones is synonymous with going to the app store; the possibility of using a web app doesn’t even occur to them. So web apps have a marketing and distribution problem. Google is trying to overcome it with their Chrome web apps store, but it’s a steep uphill climb.

    That’s why, notwithstanding my distaste for app world, I plan to release native apps for my identity presentation service CardVine, which currently exists as a web app only. I have no intention of giving up on the web app, however.

  3. kasamis says:

    There is no doubt that this is true on the open web

  4. BenHill123 says:

    Ralph,
    true that, but the true money is still in the open web, google came from the open web, facebook came from the open web, groupon came from the open web, when we have a multi billion dollar company focussed mainly on android and ios apps, then we can say apps have arrived.

  5. Alex Hammer says:

    I agree with most of your points. I see the web not only as a platform in a general sense, but applications as a (brand and influence) extension.

    I also see applications as a kind of web business intelligence. They sort. They integrate. They provide context. Etc. as they brand and extend.

  6. Users don’t care about “principles” they care about user experience, which is currently much richer on native mobile apps. Developers will go to where the users are. The day the mobile web catches up with native apps UX is the day we no longer need native apps. But that day is not anytime soon with current technology, trends, and restrictions.

  7. streaming says:

    Hi John, we have to remember that the application is a kind of business intelligence, They sort. They integrate. They provide context. Etc. as they brand and extend.

  8. pvud says:

    is that app world offers the masses one-stop shopping for all their software needs, whereas web apps are spread out all over the web. At SXSWi last week, it was driven home to me that for many people, doing something new with their phones is synonymous with going to the app store; the possibility of using a web app doesn’t even occur to them.

  9. subg.org says:

    groupon came from the open web, when we have a multi billion dollar company focussed mainly on android and ios apps

  10. Jordan says:

    Smart of you not to predict that Windows would be problem free…2 more x’s to your chart.

  11. Peter says:

    Hi John,

    Enjoyed the piece.

    Some emerging thoughts….

    1) web as platform….. I reckon that the real platform is the users. My brain is the only thing that holds together all the ‘platforms’ that I interact with. My brain is the bit you’re really trying to innovate on top of. Well, obviously not just _my_ brain ;-)

    2) apps are generally more focused, and the release cycle imposes more of a ‘think before you code’ mentality. This clarity might give similar advantages for apps over websites as unix commandline tools have over bloated registry-hog windows applications. (just painting a picture here)

    3) critical for apps will be the way that they access data from servers, and the way that apps communicate with each other. The shared keychain code in the iOS api has barely begun to be exploited, and ditto for GameKit- which should be used much more outside of games.

    I’m going to try and make more sense of these thoughts in a blog post, but thanks for giving me lots to think about.

    Cheers

    Peter

  12. I think web purists have a blind spot where they hugely overestimate the extent to which the mainstream care about the web itself. People only care about the experience which is why apps are so popular. Few more thoughts here… http://bit.ly/bEEJdw

  13. Mark Gannon says:

    Great piece!

    The one spot I think could be improved is the economics of apps. With Apple having established the category, everyone copies them. Not only do they want 30% of the sales price, but most agreements want a percentage of all your revenues and include onerous terms like audits.
    While I agree that walled gardens can provide a better experience in the short term, it is at the expense of long term innovation and improvements. Those will only come from a truly open environment.

  14. Mark Sigal says:

    John,

    The problem I have with your piece is that it falls into the trap of, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Why must we define things according to such artificial All-or-None parameters?

    Case in point, is Google a web company or an apps company? In PC, the answer is (mostly) clear-cut, but in mobile, Google’s best apps are just as likely to be native apps as they are to be web apps.

    Google Maps for mobile is a native app. Google Earth is a native app. So, too, Google Voice.

    Moreover, how can you credibly argue that the Apps Economy is not a platform play when tens of thousands of developers prove differently?

    Perhaps the boring, simple truth is that if you want ubiquity with zero installation, web apps are the way to go. If you want to develop a better user experience, native apps are the way to.

    One size doesn’t fit all, just as one truth is an overly simplistic (un) truth.

    I think that the larger challenge to the apps economy is business model. The PC era gave rise to numerous $100M+ revenue companies, so too with the Web era. To date, the best we can say about the Apps economy is that Angry Birds is a $10M+ business.

    At the end of the day, a platform play succeeds or fails based upon the ability of developers to make money on that platform.

    Thus, I’d argue that the model that prevails will be the one that enables its ecosystem the richest path to economic viability.

    Outcomes over attributes.

    Cheers,

    Mark

  15. I don’t know about that!