Rethinking What We Mean by ‘Mobile Web’

Chris Dixon, in a piece titled “The Decline of the Mobile Web”, citing stats from ComScore and Flurry:

People are spending more time on mobile vs desktop. And more of their mobile time using apps, not the web.

This is a worrisome trend for the web. Mobile is the future. What wins mobile, wins the Internet. Right now, apps are winning and the web is losing.

I think Dixon has it all wrong. We shouldn’t think of the “web” as only what renders inside a web browser. The web is HTTP, and the open Internet. What exactly are people doing with these mobile apps? Largely, using the same services, which, on the desktop, they use in a web browser. Plus, on mobile, the difference between “apps” and “the web” is easily conflated. When I’m using Tweetbot, for example, much of my time in the app is spent reading web pages rendered in a web browser. Surely that’s true of mobile Facebook users, as well. What should that count as, “app” or “web”?

I publish a website, but tens of thousands of my most loyal readers consume it using RSS apps. What should they count as, “app” or “web”?

I say: who cares? It’s all the web.

We shouldn’t think of “the web” as only what renders in web browsers. We should think of the web as anything transmitted using HTTP and HTTPS. Apps and websites are peers, not competitors. They’re all just clients to the same services.

Consider Facebook, the single biggest winner in Flurry’s “time spent” statistics. On the desktop, all Facebook usage takes place in browser windows. On mobile, most of it takes place in a native app. Same with YouTube and Twitter: on the desktop, they’re in the browser; on mobile, they’re in apps. It’s not about the politics of open-vs.-closed platforms. It’s simply about providing the best possible experience for users.

We should celebrate, not bemoan, that the web has diversified beyond the confines of browser tabs and the limits of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Let websites, rendered in browsers, be good at what they’re good at. (And websites are perfect for so many things.) But let native apps be good at what they’re good at, too. Like water flowing downhill, users gravitate to the best experiences. Saying that we’re worse off for the popularity of native mobile apps is like saying water should run uphill.

The single biggest slice in Flurry’s statistics is “gaming”, at 32 percent. Does anyone really think that mobile games would be better off written to run in web browser tabs? Lamenting today the falling share of time people spend in web browsers at the expense of mobile apps is no different from those who a decade ago lamented the falling share of time spent reading paper newspapers and magazines at the expense of websites.

It’s possible that the word “web” is too tightly associated with HTML/CSS/JavaScript content rendered in web browsers — that if I want to make a semantic argument, I should be saying it’s the internet that matters, not the web. But I like calling it the web, even as it expands outside the confines of HTML/CSS/JavaScript. The web has always been a nebulous concept, but at its center is the idea that everything can be linked. So when I open Tweetbot on my iPhone and tap a link that opens within the app as a web page, and from that web page tap a link that opens a video in the YouTube app — that to me feels very webby.

Dixon concludes:

Apps are heavily controlled by the dominant app stores owners, Apple and Google. Google and Apple control what apps are allowed to exist, how apps are built, what apps get promoted, and charge a 30% tax on revenues.

Most worrisome: they reject entire classes of apps without stated reasons or allowing for recourse (e.g. Apple has rejected all apps related to Bitcoin). The open architecture of the web led to an incredible era of experimentation. Many startups are controversial when they are first founded. What if AOL or some other central gatekeeper had controlled the web, and developers had to ask permission to create Google, YouTube, eBay, Paypal, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Sadly, this is where weโ€™re headed on mobile.

Yes, Apple and Google (and Amazon, and Microsoft) control their respective app stores. But the difference from Dixon’s AOL analogy is that they don’t control the internet — and they don’t control each other. Apple doesn’t want cool new apps launching Android-only, and it surely bothers Google that so many cool new apps launch iOS-first. Apple’s stance on Bitcoin hasn’t exactly kept Bitcoin from growing explosively. App Stores are walled gardens, but the apps themselves are just clients to the open web/internet.1

The new mobile app-centric order hasn’t been a problem for Instagram, WhatsApp, Vine, Secret, or dozens of other new companies. In fact, I don’t think many of them would have even existed in a world still centered on HTML/CSS/JavaScript rendered in a browser. Instagram needed the camera, and thrived by providing scrolling performance unmatched by anything I’ve ever seen in a mobile web browser — even today, let alone when Instagram debuted in 2010. How could messaging apps like WhatsApp and Line even exist in a browser-only world?

The rise of mobile apps hasn’t taken anything away from the wide open world of web browsers and cross-platform HTML/CSS/JavaScript — other than supremacy. I think that bothers some, who saw the HTML/CSS/JavaScript browser-centric web’s decade-ago supremacy as the end point, the ultimate triumph of a truly open platform, rather than what it really was: just another milestone along the way of an industry that is always in flux, ever ebbing and flowing.

What we’ve gained, though, is a wide range of interaction capabilities that never could have existed in a web browser-centric world. That to me is cause for celebration.


  1. Note too, for example, that Twitter itself has imposed far more limitations on mobile Twitter client apps than any app store has. Or consider the spat between Google and Microsoft regarding Microsoft’s YouTube app for Windows Phone. The jostling for control is not limited to the app stores themselves. 

Ads via The Deck Ads via The Deck