The Mobile Web: Are We Shutting Ourselves In?

I recently made the switch from iPhone to Android. It had been on the cards for a while but Apple’s decision to ban the last Bitcoin wallet from the App Store gave me the final push that I needed. It was a simple decision at the end of the day: my mobile simply couldn’t now do what I needed it to – and I’m delighted to say that the experience has been awesome so far.

Whilst going through the necessary admin to make the switch, I was struck by just how different the factors were that now influenced my choice of mobile. There were few similarities with those that had pushed me towards my original iPhone all those years before. My needs as a consumer have changed of course, but with the passage of time, my views on the technology ecosystem that surrounds us and upon which we increasingly depend in daily life have also matured.

Closed versus open systems

Like many, in the early days I was perfectly content to rely upon companies that built their foundations using the walled garden approach. These companies succeeded precisely because they had total control over all of the applications, content and media that lived within their software ecosystems. And in those days, the reality was that the capabilities offered by the early iPhone when it came to web-browsing were so far in advance of my Blackberry that there really wasn’t even a decision to make.

Yet with time, it’s become increasingly clear that by placing our sole reliance on a single centralised arbiter of quality, a gatekeeper who takes a cut from everyone that wants to participate in that closed platform, we’re often failing to ask ourselves a more important question – are the same barriers that help to maintain such quality actually restricting innovation from taking place?

The inevitable flow of the internet

The internet has an irresistible capacity to surface the things that are valuable to others, regardless of what that content is and whether it is being searched for by individuals or tribes of people united by a sole interest.

By its very nature, the internet allows people, ideas, content and programmes that deliver true value to gain traction online at scale in a way that an attempt carried out within the physical world could never match. With personal recommendations within social media acting as fuel for the mass curation of quality content, in combination with general advances in technology outside the walled gardens, it’s now time more than ever to think carefully about the system that we want to support over the longer term.

Because by choosing companies that ring-fence content on their platforms (whether that is iOS apps, Kindle books or other forms of Facebook-locked content), we are signalling by default that we accept the existence of these barriers to discovery. We trust others to make such decisions on our behalf and in so doing provide them with the power to determine what we consume in both thought and product. It’s almost a return back to the traditional single channel publishing model. And I’m far from convinced that this is the way forward.

Mobile web or mobile apps?

Interestingly, one of the first discussions I read on my new phone (via Twitter) was a debate on a related issue. In January 2014, the US hit a significant milestone as for the first time ever, more people accessed the web via mobile (55%) than on desktop computers (45%). On first glance, this simply reconfirms the projections that Benedict Evans and others have been making for a while about the fact that “mobile is eating the world”:-

But look more closely at that 55%. The stats show that 47% of that time is spent using apps on mobile devices, compared to just 8% of time being spent in mobile browsers. In his post ‘The decline of the mobile web’, Chris Dixon warns of damaging consequences if this trend continues.

So why is this a bad thing? Those figures suggest that people who go online using their mobiles tend to spend most of that time within a small number of popular apps (as opposed to using a mobile browser). And as people congregate in a relatively small number of apps, information tends to become stuck in silos that prevent it from flowing freely. What’s more, businesses are likely to allocate scarce resources to apps rather than mobile web in the future as they tend to view visitors in their app as more valuable than those on their mobile website. As the difference in experience becomes more pronounced over time, this could lead to poorer mobile web experiences overall which will in turn accelerate the move to apps.

Convenience for the customer comes at a cost. With both Apple and Google acting as gatekeepers to their respective app stores and charging a 30% tax, innovative new apps have to factor in that cost of getting through the doors before they can even be in with a chance of forcing their way onto the packed home screens of mobile users. Why would you even let a potential competitor through the gates?

Do apps prevent innovation?

Dixon has received both support and criticism in equal measure for this analysis. To be fair, the statistics do appear to artificially inflate mobile usage by including time spent by individuals playing mobile games online. John Gruber argues that the distinction between mobile webs and apps isn’t that clear in practice. In many cases, a user who relies on an app like Twitter will actually open web pages rendered in a web browser whilst still technically being within the app itself. And of course, Dixon’s criticism of apps ignores the fact that this format has enabled other types of innovation to thrive – think of the creation of a whole range of companies who are not reliant on the web-browser (WhatsApp, Instagram et al).

The debate reminds me of Tim Berners-Lee’s call for the defence of the Web a couple of years back. When he actually set this whole thing in motion some twenty-five years ago, the whole purpose of the web was to link interesting content together. The web’s core principles revolve around “a profound concept: that any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere”. Putting up barriers and closing platforms were certainly not concepts that he intended at least. Many of the same arguments were made in the Wired article ‘The Web Is Dead. Long Live The Internet’ which is well worth a read if only to see just how accurate those predictions from 2010 have turned out to be so far.

Will the walls of those gardens fall?

I’m convinced that decentralisation is one of the key themes for all our futures – of the internet and of every possible service that can be provided online. The network is gradually becoming stronger on a daily basis. So I find this reality impossible to reconcile with a picture of the world in which powerful companies continue to own such gateways in the same way as they do today. Even if we can become comfortable that the current system doesn’t in fact inhibit innovation, such convenience continues to impose a high cost – and at the very least, that cost is increasingly shaping up to be the personal data that we are leaving behind us in our wake as a society for powerful organisations to collect.

As we move into a world where the internet of things is increasingly becoming a reality, the same data that is being leaked today is going to be used to directly influence our everyday lives in the future, for all manner of reasons, from good (personalised healthcare) to bad (intrusive personalised marketing). After all, the data analysts of the future will know exactly what you did today and the restorative clean-up work that we need to carry out is becoming a bigger job with each passing day.

Control v The Rich Tapestry of Chaos?

For the most part, we as humans we have a fundamental desire to seek control and possession within society. But it’s worth remembering that this doesn’t have to be the future that we create for ourselves on the web. There will always be a place for order, quality and reliability. But those standards shouldn’t be pursued to the extent that the very pursuit of such ideals sterilises an otherwise fertile landscape in which innovative creations are possible only at the point when such constraints are relaxed.

You’ll forgive me the ramble, perhaps. Of course, the future of the internet is far more important than the simple removal of my Bitcoin wallet from the App Store. Yet the wonder of the internet is that it’s a technology that that facilitates activity at both an individual level and on a monumental scale – simultaneously.

So if something’s not working for you in your daily life, it’s time to change. Don’t just sit back and accept it. Think about the changes you’d like to see and, if necessary, go out and innovate. That’s both the power and responsibility that you hold in a modern digital society.

You don’t just owe it to yourself. You owe it to all of us.

photo credit: Mauer-betlehem via cc

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