March 23, 2012

The Future of Apps and Web

Main Findings: Apps vs. Web: Winner?

Respondents’ thoughts

Tension pair on future of apps and the Web

Most people surveyed said the functionality and popularity of the Web will continue to get stronger. Many top experts said the future will be a blend of the wide-open Web and customized apps, with people using apps/Web accessed through cloud computing. More than a third of survey participants said the Web will be replaced as the primary gateway to information for most people, as humans’ craving for convenient access to information everywhere magnifies the prevalence of and dependence upon mobile devices and the targeted software applications known as “apps.”

Overall, the tech experts participating in this survey generally believe the mobile revolution, the popularity of targeted apps, the monetization of online products and services, and cloud computing innovations will drive Web evolution. Some survey respondents say while much will be gained, perhaps even more may be lost if the “appification” of the Web comes to pass.

After being asked to choose one of the two 2020 scenarios presented in this survey question, respondents were also asked, “Will the Amazon, Apple, Google model of apps, app stores, and controlled devices dominate to the point of diminishing the importance and utility of the open Web by 2020? What are the positives, negatives, and shades of grey in the likely future you anticipate?”

Following is a selection from the hundreds of written responses survey participants shared when answering this question. About half of the expert survey respondents elected to remain anonymous, not taking credit for their remarks. Because people’s expertise is an important element of their participation in the conversation, this report primarily includes the comments of those who took credit for what they said. The full set of expert responses to the Future of the Internet V survey, anonymous and not, can be found online at http://www.elon.edu/predictions. The selected statements that follow here are grouped under headings that indicate some of the major themes emerging from the overall responses. The varied and conflicting headings indicate the wide range of opinions found in respondents’ reflective replies.

Some expect a bright future for the ‘open’ World Wide Web

Many respondents said people will carry on with creating and communicating on the Web and not cede all power to apps-based activities, one prominent blogger noting that old-world publishers are “merely deluding themselves,” and a research scientist saying the Web’s diversity is a “reflection of human society’s restless character.”

Jerry Michalski, founder of Relationship Economy Expedition and consultant for the Institute for the Future, wrote in response to this question: “The gated bubble worlds formed by app markets, Facebook, and other private spaces will bloom and fade, while people will keep gathering in the open spaces.” But he tempered his remark by saying, “On this one, I may be too optimistic.”

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, author of What Would Google Do? said, “The browser—or its future equivalent—will continue to have key advantages over apps: They are connected to the entire Net, they offer full interoperability, and they give the user more power than the developer or publisher. Yes, publishers have dreamed that apps would return to them the control of content, experience, business model, and pricing that the Net took from them, but they are merely deluding themselves. The value is not in their control of content but in the ability to become platforms for users to do what they want to do.”

David Cohn, founder and director of the online journalism organization Spot.US, wrote, “I sincerely hope and believe that the open Web prevails. Until there is a ‘Wordpress’-like app builder, the open Web has less barriers and more voices.”

Bryan Alexander, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, listed three reasons he expects the Web to continue to be the go-to source for material: “One: The Web remains the source of many apps’ materials. Example—news portal apps, which duplicate website content. Two: Few producers can afford to build additional content and/or content production streams, alongside their Web work. Three: Consumers’ hunger to move content around their owned devices will trump walled gardens (i.e., Apple’s).”

Allison Mankin, a computer-networking expert formerly with the National Science Foundation and active in the Internet Engineering Task Force, wrote, “Collections of traffic data show that there are dominant, common destinations, but beyond those, the usage of the Net is highly diverse. Economic forces and our tendency to prefer smaller pictures lead to a view that there will be consolidation and apps will dominate, but in the big picture, I cannot see the highly diverse, millions to billions of destinations going away. The ability of the Net to accommodate unlimited diversity will continue and therefore there will be an open Web, never fully open because there are many competing forces, but diversified and fast-moving, as a reflection of human society’s restless character.”

Robert Cannon, senior counsel for Internet law in the Federal Communication Commission’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, responded, “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.”

An anonymous respondent confidently proclaimed, “The open Web will continue to be where the action is long after my iPad has become a coaster.” Another wrote, “Perhaps unfounded, I believe people will not side with a full cable-ization of the Internet.”

A trend toward individuality was predicted by one anonymous respondent, who wrote: “Change will be driven by growing disgust with the functionality of desktop software, which will also help to system-design what you are calling the ‘open Web.’ It will be a very long time before consumers fully entrust their digital lives to closed systems, though tablets are certainly pushing in this direction. Apps are here to stay, but I do not think they will dramatically change the role of more open systems over the next decade. Also, there will also be a growth in content providers, and many of the trends driving the app world are focused on consumption. Trends towards natural foods, community gardens, live concerts, and the like will grow in importance. There will be powerful trends towards individuality as people embrace the importance of human experience in a world more dominated by tech knowledge.”

Those who see apps dominating say they play into human needs and human nature. Are we entering an age of “apps potatoes”?

A number of respondents said that humans today have adopted a consumer-culture approach to negotiating their lives, and the convenience of using apps as a gateway to getting what you want fits in that paradigm. “Ease of use always wins,” wrote technology author and consultant Fred Hapgood.

Giacomo Mazzone, head of institutional relations for the European Broadcasting Union, predicted some people will become “app potatoes,” writing, “The Amazon, Apple, and Google model of apps will diminish the importance and utility of the open Web by 2020. There will be again a digital divide, this one will be between those who will prefer to use ready-made applications and those who are building ways or searching on their own to find the needed solutions. This will occur especially for the simpler functions, where a ready-made application could save time and brain energy to obtain the pursued goals. Instead of couch potatoes you’ll have app potatoes.”

Consultant and researcher Stowe Boyd responded that people are quickly moving away from browser-based access to the app-based model of Web access, and he noted a number of factors. “Apple and other platform companies can retain greater control of the user experience, and guarantee a uniformly better user experience in the app model, based on a controlled distribution of apps through platform-based app stores. This also has enormous economic incentives for app and platform companies, since blocking low-cost, low-quality apps raises the average price for accepted apps.”

Boyd said the ideas behind what is known as the ‘open Web’ are based on relatively old principles, including disconnected computers, HTTP information protocols, and the desktop operating system of folders, files, and executables. “Platform companies—especially Apple and Google—are moving to new meta-architecture principles, such as tablets, touch, and gestural interfaces, ubiquitous connectivity, and social networking,” he noted. “These are being baked into the core platforms so that app developers will be able to take advantage of them, natively, without having to reinvent those wheels over and over again. Note that this provides a second and enormously large economic leverage for app developers, and by extension, for users. Put another way, the platform companies will push a great deal into their infrastructure, and app developers will be able to push much higher into ultrastructure, providing a much richer user experience via post-browser-Web apps.”

Boyd predicted browser-based access is nearing its end. “In the very near-term—like five to seven years—the browser will drop from the most-used tool to the least-used, because of this change,” he said. “Just look at how people use their iPhones. The browser will be something like the terminal program on the Mac: a tool for programmers and throwbacks, only occasionally used by regular folks. A few years ago, I worked on a project for the Mozilla foundation, on the future of the browser. I was the first to raise my hand and say that in ten years the browser would be dead. The Mozilla guys laughed it off, but I am standing by my original prediction.”

An anonymous respondent said apps serve human needs for easy access to get what they want and the Web will simply be an invisible aspect of Internet architecture. “People don’t understand how the Internet works now,” he said, “and apps minimize the problems inherent with viruses, poor functionality, and malware. Apps will continue to proliferate, especially as mobile phones are increasingly used to access the Internet. It is not that the Web will be unimportant; it will just become part of the underlying technological framework that users acknowledge but do not understand.”

Apps are easier to turn into profits, or ‘monetize’; those who see them dominating share fears for the future

Many survey respondents say the current evolution in mobile Internet access is being dominated by a focused attempt to find ways to derive profits from the global network. “The corporate push is to close off the Web and rely upon apps, as they are easier to control and turn into commodities for sale,” wrote Jesse Drew, an associate professor of technocultural studies at the University of California-Davis. “It is another click toward stripping citizens of their ability to create and control their technological environment.”

David Ellis, director of communication studies at York University and author of the blog Life on the Broadband Internet, shared historical parallels and said the Web is being altered by social and economic forces. “The apps model as developed by Amazon, Apple, Google, and the like is another form of the walled garden made notorious by AOL. Then, as now, large numbers of people online are going for this model, and mostly for the same reason—convenience. Starting in the late 1990s, Steve Case saw a huge market among newbies who had come recently to dialup and had no idea how to navigate around the Web, let alone use dedicated Internet protocols like FTP. That model finally broke because a) broadband happened and b) the newbies grew up and wanted to venture out past AOL’s proprietary offerings.  What’s different today is we’re getting a lot more growing in our gardens. They look better, offer more choice, and get real things done reliably. What’s not so different is we’ve still got the walls. Or to put it in Jonathan Zittrain’s terms [in the book The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It], a lot more tethered appliances—think iPad—and fewer generative devices—think iMac, though even here Apple is tying us tighter and tighter to their servers and commercial services (no more OS on a disc). The apps model looks like it’s going to win, though not necessarily because of the apps themselves.

“I sometimes think I’m giving up too much freedom of choice by sticking with Macs, or putting too many eggs in Google’s basket,” Ellis continued. “But wild horses couldn’t tear me away from my MacBook Pro or Google Analytics. On the other hand, loyalty to these ‘controlled’ devices and services isn’t the same thing as running everything from the app store. The research indicates most people use only a tiny fraction of the apps available, and many downloads get used once and then vanish. I’m therefore not convinced apps will make general-purpose browsers and computing devices disappear. Nor am I sure that having 130 apps (like my daughter does) is a way to make your life more convenient. But I have to admit the ‘open’ Web is certainly changing—just ask the 750 million people on the anti-Web, also known as Facebook.”

An anonymous respondent said, “The future will depend on how powerful the oligopoly will be in creating a stratified system wherein the Web is deemed low-class and is therefore underfunded and slowed via corporate and regulatory connivance.” Another anonymous survey participant wrote, “Authorities will, piece-by-piece, eliminate the free Web through regulation, licensing, and firewalls that respect country borders. The Web will be more like cable TV via apps; everything will be either pay-as-you-go or advertising-supported.”

Brian Trammell, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, says the “dream of the Web as an open, level playing field” was “dead after its first ten years.” He wrote: “The Web is already moving toward a delivery platform for AJAX/Javascript/Flash ‘apps’ masquerading as websites, so the line between an ‘open Web’ and an ‘app-dominated world’ is kind of an arbitrary one. Certainly, the world is moving away from open protocols where anyone can play to proprietary, more easily monetizable services (e.g. Twitter or Facebook messaging instead of SMTP/IMAP). HTTP will probably continue to be an important transport/session layer protocol, and Web browsers will continue playing a part in application access and installation. But the dream of the Web as an open, level playing field where anyone can publish or provide services was as dead after its first ten years, as it was in the case of radio. Security threats—real and imagined—will tend to decrease the appeal of the open Web for both providers and consumers; for example, electronic banking, where the risk of a security breach is especially high, is already moving toward closed access on the customer end (virtualized or dedicated PCs for customer access, or proprietary devices for session and transaction verification).”

Former White House technology advisor Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard University and founder of OneWebDay (http://onewebday.org/), responded, “I’m sad about this. Really sad. Apps are like cable channels—closed, proprietary, and cleaned-up experiences. As at Disneyland, there are no back alleys or surprises—anything unexpected was planned by someone at headquarters. I don’t want the world of the Web to end like this. But it will, because people’s expectations have been shaped by companies that view them as consumers. Those giant interests will push every button they can: fear, inexperience, passivity, and willingness to be entertained. And we’ll get a cleaned-up world that we can be perfectly billed for. It’s not good. It wasn’t the point of the decentralized Internet. Even the commercial Web wasn’t the point of the decentralized Internet. It was all supposed to be about human communication, unlimited, unfiltered, and full-bandwidth. But instead of being known (which is the goal of humans, always) we’ll be counted by apps. Some of us will continue to ignore apps, and in turn we’ll be thoroughly ignored and rendered irrelevant by the new world. But when you’re bored, come visit.”

Survey participants who expressed concerns about a future dominated by app-enabled Internet gateways primarily see apps as “closed” and the Web as “open.”

Seth Finkelstein, professional programmer and Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award winner, responded, “I wish it weren’t true, but the history of enclosure, centralization, and consolidation makes me very pessimistic about the open Web winning over the closed apps. There will always be a Web, but it may end up like the imagery of a person standing on a soapbox, referred to more for its romantic symbolism than mattering in reality.”

Mark Callahan, artistic director for Ideas for Creative Exploration at the University of Georgia, agreed, writing, “There seems to be a steady trend toward ‘app’ culture. The idea of the ‘open Web’ will exist as a quaint notion in 2020, tinged with nostalgia and faded utopian desire.”

Kevin Carson, a research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society, predicted, “It’s the Apple 1984 ad all over again, but this time the Big Brother on the telescreen is Steve Jobs and the hammer thrower’s wearing a Linux penguin on her t-shirt.”

Richard Titus, a seed funding venture capitalist at his own fund, Octavian Ventures, worried over the survival of serendipity, saying it depends upon the Web. “What apps do terribly is the thing that makes so many like John Perry Barlow afraid of this stage of evolution,” he observed. “The Web is about discovery and serendipity, it’s about finding something you weren’t looking for; to lose that would be to take a step back in our progress as intellectual humans, the equivalent of burning a digital book.”

Ebenezer Baldwin Bowles, owner and managing editor of corndancer.com, also expressed concerns about controlled devices, responding, “Apps are the logical extension of a late 1990s movement among freelance developers that produced thousands of snippets of software known as ‘shareware,’ some freely given for the love of the game, others launched into the Web in hopes of attracting donations or enticing users to purchase more robust versions of the snippet, now known as the app. There is nothing new but the level of corporate control—much higher—and the narrowing of options for the individual. Apps are also an outgrowth of a Web that has slowly but inexorably come to be dominated by a handful of major players and the insatiable institutional greed that motivates them to develop and promote tightly restricted and highly monetized iPads, Kindles, Nooks, Droids, and all the other sleek little tools and playthings designed, ultimately, to smother individual initiative and strengthen corporate control. This shall not change for the better by 2020.”

It’s ‘appening’ right now: The emerging trend is accessing apps in the cloud, and ‘appification’ is under way

People are already conducting a lot of their mobile-apps-based and PC-based communication in the cloud—on remote servers accessed through the Internet—and the experts expect that evolution to continue to expand. Steve Jones, a distinguished professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said apps are already a dominant gateway through which many people focus online processes. “The degree to which people interact through apps is already quite high,” he said, “and it is only a matter of time until the majority of users of major sites like Facebook, Google, and others will be thoroughly via apps.”

Cathy Cavanaugh, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida-Gainesville, predicted, “App development and use will be become easier and more inclusive as low-threshold development tools become as widespread as office productivity tools. Education will turn to app development as a project-based demonstration of learning and to custom, adaptive assessment apps for other measures of learning. Individuals will use app creation and modification as a creative medium.”

Anita Salem, a consultant and human systems researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School, said, “Apps are here to stay; I see them merging into the Internet as cloud applications, available ‘as needed.’ I suspect that the apps will also start to merge into more robust combinations that are task-oriented for the business sector. For personal use, apps will remain small and will be localized to specific functions. This makes sense economically for suppliers and purchasers.”

Tom Hood, CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs, observed that his teenage and young adult children sleep with their smartphones and said he sees a combination of approaches. “The dizzying pace of adoption in the mobile category makes me believe that the apps are the future,” he wrote. “Access to the open Web, useful focused apps, and cloud-based applications via mobile devices will be the most likely outcome in 2020. I am also wondering how the semantic Web (Web 3.0) will influence these predictions—will they be apps, open-Web or both?”

Ondrej Sury, chief scientist at the Internet registry for the Czech Republic, CZ.NIC, said big data in the cloud is the predominant looming trend. “Even though the apps may be seen as more secure, the world is moving to the direction of offloading your data with big providers and it’s really not important what protocol the people will use when accessing them,” he wrote. “The problem with this trend is that the people will have less control over their data, there will be more snooping and more control from governments and big companies. It also means less privacy, which we also can see under the excuse of more ‘security.’ I actually think that there will be a gap—there will be a mass of people who will prefer convenience over privacy and security, and there will be people who will guard their privacy, and then something in between.”

“The app revolution will soon be complete,” wrote an anonymous survey participant. “Users welcome trusted intermediaries provided they feel they are getting maximum choice and good value. Well-designed apps will emerge to accommodate user-generated content and make it much easier to find and use. Apps will also create a more efficient marketplace through which creators can harvest value for their innovations, far more easily than the repeated, failed efforts to monetize ‘Web content.’ Apps Store providers can ensure that apps are bandwidth-efficient, that they protect consumer privacy, that their provenance can be more readily known to potential users, etc. While there are some potential trade-offs on ‘openness,’ the apps marketplace should be sufficiently competitive such that anyone with a legitimate product will have the opportunity to reach an audience—probably far more readily than most innovators can through the Web. By no means will the Web disappear—it will serve a critical free-speech function. But it will not be where livelihoods are made.”

An anonymous respondent wrote, “We will see an ‘app-ification’ of the Web itself, something we’re already witnessing, as people’s use of the open Web goes far beyond information retrieval on ‘sites.’ Browsers, design, and coding techniques have already made ‘Web apps’ a common thing. There will probably be less of a gap between the capabilities and behavior of ‘native apps’ and ‘Web apps’ in the not-too-distant future.”

Jeff Eisenach, managing director and principal at Navigant Economics LLC, said, “Digital tools that park some code on the device and some in the cloud (apps) will continue to proliferate, along with tools accessed through generic browsers (‘Web pages’) and tools that reside only on the device.”

Paul Gardner-Stephen, rural, remote and humanitarian telecommunications fellow at Flinders University, noted, “HTML5 and other technologies will continue to blur the line between Web and app, until the average end user would have difficulty assessing the meaning of this question.”

Rob Scott, chief technology officer and intelligence liaison at Nokia, proclaimed there is no doubt that Web apps will replace native apps on network devices of all types. “Once HTML5 browsers and fully capable Web runtimes are in place on the common Kindle through iPhone, the Web app will begin replacing native apps,” he said. “There will still be plenty of native apps in use to offer the utmost in user experience and performance, but the vast majority of applications look and work as much as their predecessors do while being served from the cloud rather than the local window manager.

“The problem of intermittent failure of Web apps due to loss of connectivity,” he added, “is addressed by putting the ‘server’ on the user’s device and allowing it to act in a cached mode when connectivity is lost. While this cannot work for tasks requiring live network access, such as financial transactions, this limitation also exists for the native apps and thus presents no new problems.”

Another anonymous participation observed, “I currently see a broad degree of support from industry for purely Web-based systems. Google and Microsoft are clearly behind this and, strangely enough, I see Apple as also supporting this trend through its ongoing development of WebKit. So far as that support continues, I see the future of applications to be descendants of HTML5 and not iOS, Android, or WebOS. Cloud-based applications are better for everyone in the system—developers, providers, consumers, and enterprise—for this to fail.”

Microsoft Research and Harvard expert danah boyd agrees the future of the Web and apps is not an either/or game. “Both will be used more heavily than either are used today,” she responded, “and, given the early stage of apps, it will appear that they are used even more. But the vast majority of apps are simply a wrapper around Web content that makes it as accessible as a bookmark, and the ‘Web’ is filled with DRMed content already. So creating a clean division between Web and apps is going to be more impossible anyhow.”

Nathaniel James, a social innovation consultant and former director of OneWebDay, said most consumers will follow the technology that is “affordable, readily available, and provides an intuitive user experience,” adding, “The massive investment and rapid adoption of the apps model suggests its strong standing vs. open Web technologies. However, even if the apps model does predominate, the open Web will continue to thrive, sometimes in parallel to, sometimes interoperatively with, apps. The global Internet user population will be massive, some markets will prefer the benefits of free, open technology, and a lively community of Web developers will steward an open innovation space on the Web.”

Many trust in HTML5 and say that improving Web functionality will be a key to its utility

The engineers and research scientists who continue to work on the Web’s evolution have been rolling out the semantic Web—what some people call Web 3.0. Today’s sophisticated Internet users go online expecting to find high-quality interactive experiences that incorporate their geolocation, preferences, animations, HD-quality video, and augmented-reality functions, to name just a few advanced characteristics. Many experts say the continued success of the Web is dependent upon the ongoing development and acceptance of HTML5, the latest version of the HyperText Markup Language used to create Web pages.

HTML5 is most often used to refer to what is actually a suite of approaches (including HTML5, CSS, SVG, WOFF, and others) that Web architects are using to orchestrate interactive text, graphics, video, audio and other elements users wish to implement. The evolution to HTML5 is allowing people to create more dynamic Web content, making it possible to write browser-accessible Web apps that are as appealing and interactive as the device-specific apps so popular now on smartphones and tablets. The newest versions of browsers, including Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari, can easily read HTML5 pages without using “plug ins” which can sometimes cause usability problems. While HTML5 is still under development, it is being actively deployed; broad interoperability for the full suite is targeted for 2014. Many survey respondents said Web evolution will be significant over the next few years, heightening its relevance and functionality. They say the apparent separation consumers perceive between access through mobile apps and access on the Web will disappear.

“I would bet that HTML5 is going to make the Web very attractive. There are a lot of advantages to an open Web, and I would hate to see that go away,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google.

Bruce Nordman, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, responded, “Apps and Web will both be winners, as many apps will be written in successors to HTML5 and so the distinction between the two will be less obvious and less important than it is today. There is some burden to having an app, so that there is a limit on how many people are likely to need or want, with ordinary Web services filling in the remainder.”

Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, predicted, “A year or two from now, the ascendance and elaboration of HTML5 is going to make the distinction between apps and Web seem somewhat artificial. We’re already seeing the rise of mobile-optimized HTML5 sites that are designed to be locally stored, like apps, on a smartphone or tablet device. What we haven’t got quite yet is a standard, cross-platform way to attach a payment mechanism to those sites (which are often sites that could be described as Web-based applications) so that people can be asked to pay for HTML5 apps the way they do for Apple or Android apps. Some manufacturers (notably Apple) will be strongly motivated to create developer tools that make native apps superior to HTML5-based apps, but the advantages of cross-platform portability and pricing, not to mention anxieties about vendor lock-in, privacy, etc., will likely make HTML5-based apps a strong, if not dominant, part of the app market. The real question is whether consumers will perceive those HTML5-based apps as part of the Web. What is worrying is a landscape in which so many people interact with the Web through these tiny little pinholes created by individual apps. If users’ experience of the Web is largely through the lens of their apps, will they still perceive themselves as users of the Web? Will they feel like they have a stake in Web standards, access, interoperability, and net neutrality? Given how hard it is to engage today’s users in these issues, it’s hard to see how people who have grown up or lived behind the app wall will really feel connected to the Web as a whole.”

Christian Huitema, distinguished engineer at Microsoft, responded, “Apps are nice, but both users and providers are starting to rebel against the ‘walled gardens.’ We are already seeing the pendulum swing back towards the Web, with many companies bypassing the app store and delivering their content using HTML5.”

A lack of ‘walled gardens’ is a perceived strength of the Web today

While some people see publishers’ desires for revenues as a driving force for an apps-dominant world, Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future, is one of many survey respondents who are confident that the economic angle will actually keep the Web on top. “The Web will be stronger than ever although apps will continue to be popular simply because many small developers appreciate app stores as commerce platforms,” he said. “Many large content and commerce service providers are growing resistant to sharing revenues with app store operators, and so will increasingly directly offer advanced services on the Web built on standard capabilities like HTML5 and subsequent developments.”  

A number of respondents shared Liebhold’s view. One anonymous survey participant wrote, “As devices, operating systems, and soft/hardware variants multiply, the Web will be increasingly seen by content providers as a more lucrative place to develop applications (rather than a specific piece of hardware or software). Developers will rather create one Web- or cloud-based program that works on everything, rather than several different applications. As companies like Apple control their app stores with iron fists, we’ll see software developers exploiting new Web technology to reach the widest audience and prevent a middle-person from skimming a percentage of profits.”

Pete Cranston, a digital media and information and communication technologies for development consultant based in Oxford, UK, commented, “Walled gardens don’t survive forever in the Internet. As cheap, reliable, fast connectivity spreads, the open Web will continue to offer the best opportunities for innovators and market-breakers, especially as Internet-based economies grow in competition to the US.”

An anonymous survey participant wrote, “This is largely a distinction without a difference. The apps that thrive will not be walled gardens, which is kind of what the Web Is Dead argument implies, but different and more useful viewpoints on the larger Web which make it easier to navigate and use for a single task. So really the answer is both of the above.”

Another anonymous respondent observed that “not all information can be gracefully atomized to the size of a mobile phone, and people probably won’t be doing most of their ‘deep dives’ on the phone on the subway—the app is the ocean surface for floating and swimming, the Web is the ocean for diving.”

Apple has been in the media spotlight significantly more than competing mobile software and hardware corporations the past few years, with most of the attention focused on the success of the iPhone, iPod, iPad, and App Store. An anonymous survey respondent reacted, “Apps are a passing fad generated by the Apple marketing machine and the artificial constraints imposed by its business model. There’s no reason the open Web will not come to provide the same benefits that people get from apps, while still holding on to its own strengths. The interoperability that the Web offers will trump the walled-garden silo, approach. The tide has already started to turn on this with magazine publishers creating Web apps instead of Apple apps so they don’t have to be at the mercy of Apple’s monopolistic business dealings.”

Microsoft was mentioned in another anonymous respondent’s reply: “While apps are prevalent now, they will eventually overreach and the market will react to the concentration of power, just as it did against Microsoft.”

And another anonymous participant wrote, “As we know from the Apple vs. Microsoft cycle of the 1980s and 1990s, you can’t run a high-margin, high-volume business through apps, and the new capabilities of the browser will make it the pre-eminent high-volume platform. Like automobiles or phones before it, the Web will be so vital by 2020 people will take it for granted. The average citizen born after 1995 won’t be able to imagine a world without the Web any more than the average citizen born after 1950 could imagine a world without trucks.”

With ubiquitous connectivity comes a need for more simplicity

A number of survey participants said the positive evolution of targeted apps and the Web will require the innovation of better approaches for managing information needs.

Wesley George, principal engineer for the Advanced Technology Group at Time Warner Cable, noted that progress is all moving us toward “ubiquitous connectivity.” He responded: “The best application will win, whether it’s categorized as an app or part of the Web (2.0, 3.0, 5.0, 42.0, doesn’t matter really). The lines between ‘the Web’ and ‘apps’ will continue to blur, with the important thing being that the method employed makes the task easier, more intuitive, more convenient, richer, and better tailored to the device being used to complete the task. The only constant is that the ubiquitous connectivity that terms like ‘the Web’ have come to represent will continue to be stronger than ever in users’ lives.”

Marti Hearst, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and advisor to start-ups and the major search engine companies, said, “Apps and the Web will co-evolve and each adopt characteristics of the other, and by 2020 we’ll have some other model entirely. In more detail, the importance of apps will continue to grow, but after a while, people will have too many to scan through, and then people will require a way to manage apps, including a way to search them. Meanwhile, the Web is being very much changed and influenced by apps, and every year, what it means for something to ‘be on the Web’ changes. There will always be a need to find general information, and apps by their nature do not provide a centralized way for information to be shared. There will then be a need for a way for apps to communicate among themselves, be better found by search engines, and so on, and they will become more Web-like.”

Some survey respondents said people don’t distinguish between approaches.They just want access to what they need. “People never cared about the Web vs. apps and devices,” commented Mark Walsh, co-founder of geniusrocket.com. “They want free stuff, entertainment, and services when they want them, and on the device they have in front of them.”

An anonymous survey respondent expressed the frustration many people are feeling in regard to the staggering amount of choices, writing, “What I see is a reduction in variety within (not across) areas of activity. There is a confusing and frustrating array of hardware, software, apps, websites, etc. Choosing from among them and then using them is burdensome. While learning and getting accustomed to any one of these is not that hard, the diversity of them, with their different interfaces, is already problematic. When I come back to a piece of software or an app that I use infrequently, I have to figure out once again how this one works.  So I see whatever will simplify and unify our activities as being popular. As much as we worry about, say, Apple or Google, their consistency across many instances of use makes them easier to deal with. I see economy of effort, combined with quality of service, as the overriding criteria by which most people will make most such choices.”

There will be a blended world where each structure has its place, and they converge

Jeffrey Alexander, senior science and technology policy analyst at SRI International’s Center for Science, Technology, and Economic Development, sees the best future as a mix now being explored by companies like Amazon. “In general the Web will come to resemble a segment within the ‘app economy’ more than the reverse,” he wrote. “The current incarnation of the Web will continue to be important for certain kinds of human-computer interaction, particularly those that require sustained attention and a richer media experience. However, the rise of cloud computing infrastructure means that apps will have comparable processing power and capability as traditional Web applications, and in many cases will be superior to our conception of today’s Web. Amazon’s new cloud-accelerated browser is an indication of where the Web is going, where more Web-delivered solutions will combine the best of local processing power and cloud-based distributed computing.”

Miguel Alcaine, head of the International Telecommunication Union office in Honduras, said while apps will be dominant, the open Web will retain some importance. “The apps might grow up in restricted and guarded Internet spaces as opposed to the open Web,” he predicted. “Although it is less likely, they can also grow with their roots in an open Web. The open Web will remain an important place for technology people, probably with interoperability standards allowing people to switch between applications. There will be less and less things you can do if you decide to remain anonymous.”

Mark Watson, senior engineer for Netflix and a leading participant in various technology groups related to the Internet, says the Web itself is going to become more app-like, and he wonders how it will continue to be monetized. “The evolution of the platform available in Web browsers means that the experience when you visit a webpage and the experience when using an app will converge, possibly to the point where there is little practical difference between a ‘bookmark enabled for offline use’ and a ‘downloaded app,’” he said. “Already many apps just render a Web page in a ‘chromeless’ browser window, so the distinction becomes a very thin one based on the UI used to launch the app/page. A different slant on the question is: What will be the dominant monetization strategy for Web pages and apps? The current app-store model includes a one-time-up-front-payment model, which doesn’t really exist on the open Web. It could be that this difference in monetization models is the only practical difference between apps and webpages.”

An anonymous respondent noted, “The Web is the ocean. Apps are islands. Water and islands co-exist. Some people prefer to swim, sail, and explore. Others prefer to sunbathe, settle, and, on occasion, island hop. Most people do a mixture of both. I think this will become more streamlined over time, but I don’t think of the apps/Web question as a battle with one winner.”

An anonymous respondent noted, “The very notion of ‘apps’ vs. ‘Web’ misses the point of changes in infrastructure that are rather closer on the horizon. This does not even take into account two extraordinarily important things: 1) The majority of the world accesses network communications via a mobile phone (and though network access is patchy at best, apps in this case are far more efficient) and 2) apps and Web are becoming very much interconnected with cloud. It is the cloud that is poised to change how things are done for work, play, and communication and apps and Web will provide interfaces.”

Apps vs. the Web is not the issue

A number of survey participants challenged the framing of the question. Their responses add a lot to the conversation. Many of the strongest arguments were made by anonymous respondents. Following is a representative collection of those responses:

“Apps and Web browsers are delivery mechanisms—the emphasis will shift strongly to services. The winning services and sites will be accessible by whatever means and device the user has—browser or specific app framework. Consider the number of popular websites that support Web, app, and customized mobile access today. The underlying Web technology will remain important, as developing for the Web will make it easy to roll out apps for the multiple app frameworks that will be viable in 2020. No, the iPhone is not going to conquer the world, neither will Android, and I expect there to be at least one more viable mobile app platform in that timeframe.”

“This is asking the wrong question. We talk about the Web as if it were the HTTP servers that make it up, but it really is the information contained in it that’s important. Prior to HTTP, we had FTP and Gopher. The proliferation of the Web is actually continuing in the various apps available, the Web is not being supplanted by the apps. So ‘one or the other’ is probably the wrong question. A better question might be—‘How is the evolution of the Web best represented by apps—momentary overlay or paradigm shift?’”

“The answer is somewhere in between. The biggest factors here are going to be issues of perceived control (by users and governments), monetization of content, customization, and the level of sophistication of users. As a result, I expect a bimodal distribution describing app use vs. online use, with the majority using a hybrid approach.”

“The question is not that the Web will be less important or useful. The point is—the Web will be still important or useful but most devices and apps will find a more direct way to perform directly through the Internet (though not through the Web) several functions—such as entertainment media, weather information, banking, etc.”

“Opportunities to integrate data with physical spaces are under utilized, today, which means in 2020 there will be more ‘apps’, but they won’t displace certain Web-only applications where screen ‘real-estate’ and heavy-weight computation are necessary resources. The limits of ‘ubiquitous computing’ will become more clear, as the hardware limits for battery life and network connectivity limit the scale of computation for certain applications on mobile devices.”

“App monocultures will not predominate, and in the absence of a single target platform for development, it’s simpler and more profitable to develop for the Web, and not be beholden to an app store or platform vendor. Obviously, apps will continue, as will app stores, but they’ll continue to be mass-market outlets for lightweight products on the one hand, and very narrow vertical outlets for very specific platform-dependent professional tools on the other, while the entire middle-ground will continue to belong to the Web.”

“The improved capabilities of mobile devices, plus the added efficiency, convenience, and enjoyment of using purpose-built apps will shift the consumer and non-IT specialized worker’s focus rapidly to native code apps. The distinction between phone and tablet will disappear, becoming more of a matter of how much text or graphics you want to see in what size. With free or inexpensive apps for 90% of consumer’s needs, that is where further investment will focus. Organizations will deploy apps for single-purpose internal functions. The World Wide Web will still exist for free-form research and use.”

“Basically, in the current client and server silo model these are the two choices. But personal data stores and VRM will disrupt that model so the client and server or cow/calf model that the Web currently is built around will shift dramatically over the next nine years. At that point, neither one of the scenarios conveys what will really happen.”

Some see a new user-interface paradigm that is still not visible on the horizon

Sam Punnett, president of FAD Research, was one of several survey respondents who predicted access will become more seamless. “By 2020 the specificity of apps vs. Web vs. anything else will begin to fade,” he said, “as there will likely be more sophisticated ways of engaging programs through input methods using voice, gesture, possibly even hard wiring [in humans] either through implants or sensors. What this should tend to do is to further drive the technology into the background. We won’t care whether it’s an app, Web app, or other devoted software as long as it gets the task performed seamlessly. If I had to place my bet, the Google approach and openness will trump the Apple approach of exclusivity.”

William Schrader, independent consultant and founder of PSINet, said a lot can happen in just eight years. “The Web and the apps will be one and the same,” he predicted. “The app, if accessed by a large screen (formerly known as a computer) will automatically slide into a large-screen mode to allow more advertising and ease of reading, navigation, and additional information. The webpage will sense when the user leaves the computer and transfer the same information to the departing user’s smartphone (or other device). Hundreds of examples might be stated which are all within reach with today’s technology and innovative spirit. But, once we allow for eight more years of experimentation, technology innovation, and the co-mingling of ‘telephone’—laptop, tablet, smartphone, and all the rest—we must be prepared for the unknown. Yes, this will be an interesting eight years.”

Susan Price, CEO and chief Web strategist at Firecat Studio LLC, expects rapid evolution of the user-interface or UI. “Apps mirror the human need for discrete labels and a mental model that helps us focus on one activity at a time,” she noted. “The construct of a ‘webpage’ is probably on the way out, but the construct of a ‘website’ as the virtual representation of a business, organization, or individual, will continue to be needed. As UI technology develops, more virtual-reality experiences will allow us to ‘visit’ such a virtual establishment with an avatar, say. We’ll transcend the ‘page’ model as these interfaces become more seamless and easy to use.”

Amber Case, CEO of Geoloqi, is an anthropologist who studies the ways in which humans are implementing new technologies. She said she shares the views of writer and consultant Sheldon Renan. He argues that the concept of communications through tools such as the ‘Internet’ or ‘apps’ will shift and people will adopt the idea of Netness. “Information will be able to speak on networks,” Case said. “Networks, fields of connectivity, and the idea that everything is loosely entangled will be the norm. The paradigm will be that ‘everything wants to be connected,’ ‘connectivity is opportunity,’ and connectivity will make the invisible visible. Opportunities will be lateral, allowing different information stores and devices to connect to other stores. Networks will be redundant and loose instead of tight and brittle as they are today. If one cannot connect on one network, or a device switches off, another network will arrive to take its place. The ‘World Wide Web’ will be a term no longer used. Perhaps we will use a simple term meaning connected or not. Connectivity = life.”

Above all, humane approaches should prevail

Where are we heading? Richard Lowenberg, director and broadband planner for the 1st Mile Institute and a network activist since the 1970s, offered this:

“Openness is a critical concept, which like ‘sustainability’ is over-used but largely misunderstood or applied. Tools and apps will continue to be driven by user needs, innovation, creativity, and consumerism. They will foster difficult, reactionary, and disruptive changes throughout the world if not developed in concert with humane approaches to our complex needs for better resource distribution, health and well being, sustaining energy strategies, and economic valuation based on the little bit we know about our place in the world which goes beyond the dangerous machinations of legacy political economics. Where is the app that allows us to simply view the slowly rotating earth from space? Where are leaders calling for simulation systems that allow us to view and run scenarios for improved local decision-support? ‘Where is the knowledge we have lost in information’ (T.S. Eliot)?”

Cite this publication: Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie. “The Future of Apps and Web.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 23, 2012) http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/03/23/the-future-of-apps-and-web/, accessed on July 22, 2014.