Apple’s Putting an End to the Open Web

We are armed with mobile technology. Our primary weapon: the notebook computer. It handles the brunt of the work. We communicate, research, explore, and discover information from it. Our secondary weapon: the smartphone. It keeps us connected when we are on the move and living our daily lives. And then there are the iPads, iPods, gaming handhelds, and other assortment of arsenal to pump out destruction.

The apps? They are the ammunition — an endless supply of destructive force. From small caliber rounds to WMDs, these puppies are ready to obliterate anything that gets in their way. And there is ample variety.

Yup, we are prepared to go to war with the digital world. Everything we need is stuffed into our backpacks. But just as the tools of the trade change, the battlefield changes as well.

The World Wide Web used to be a war zone, filled with darkness. The battles were epic. This world was filled with activity. And while not many made it out alive, those that did have now been entrenched in history.

But now it is peaceful. The sun is shining, and order has been restored. Yet nothing and no one is there. It’s quiet. Too quiet, even. So quiet that it almost exists as a horror film montage — everything is peaceful, with cutesy music playing in the background. But it is all about to go to hell, and everyone and everything will soon suffer.

It isn’t going to be pretty.

The Beginning

I remember my first experiences of this vast and awe-inspiring thing called the World Wide Web. I was rocking a 22.8K connection through CompUServe. And as I was typing things into a search engine, I became fascinated by the information that I could find. Yet there was one type of information that I valued most at that time: cheat codes.

Yes, I was a hardcore gamer at the time; looking up cheat codes for whatever I could get my hands on proved to be an addictive thing at the time. Not too difficult for someone who was under the age of 10 at the time. Still, 17 years later, I’m still using the Web even more than I was back then. And while I might not be searching for cheat codes, I still use it as my primary method to discover new and useful information.

But that was then. Information still exists on the Web, if we are willing to go out and find it. Now, however, information wants to find its way to us. There are notifications, alerts, messages, and so many other types of information that must find its way to us. The Web can’t keep up.

The Beginning of the End

July 10, 2008 was the day that Apple decided that the Web was not good enough — it couldn’t live up to the expectations of mobile devices. Instead, Apple created the App Store. It’s job: do what the Web couldn’t. Combined, the iPhone and App Store continue to provide users with a way to access information in mere seconds. With it, a mobile revolution.

The mobile revolution, itself, was a good thing. Maybe not so for productivity in the workplace and for the amount of ADHD diagnoses around the world. But it is good in other ways:

  • Information is now easily accessible.
  • Communication amongst peers has increased.
  • Journalism/reporting is evolving.
  • Creativity is soaring.
  • Developers have new opportunities to make a living.
  • Problems are being solved.

The above is good. It is, indeed, something that we should enjoy and celebrate.

But the mobile revolution also did damage. It exposed cracks in the Web’s foundation, it revealed that the Web couldn’t compete with native mobile applications, and it is harming the existence of the Web itself.

You think that is reaching too far? Trust me, it isn’t. Not if things remain the same. These are serious problems that need to be addressed.

The Problems

There are two issues, in particular, that are seriously harming the Web’s chances of competing with the likes of iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, Blackberry, and others. The first problem, which also happens to be the lesser of the two is the ability for users to easily access content on the Web.

Why bother opening up a browser, pecking away at a tiny virtual keyboard, fixing some silly error, pressing enter, waiting for a site to load, and then hoping it renders correctly on a mobile browser? Why not, instead, find an app, click on that app, and enjoy? Not only is the latter situation simpler and more efficient, it is potentially safer. (What happens if you type in an incorrect URL, for example, and are tricked into providing important information?)

The other problem, and most important of all, is the inability for Web applications to notify a user when something happens.

Web applications don’t have the ability to call a function and have a user be notified on their mobile devices. It doesn’t exist. At best, a website can craft an email message and hope that someone reads their inbox. Furthermore, it isn’t really as engaging as a notification on a smartphone. And who really really wants to deal with more email these days? I don’t.

What Needs To Happen

But there is some hope of having these two issues resolved and saving the open Web. The first solution — which would provide easier access to Web apps — depends on mobile operating systems making a significant change. They would need to embrace Web apps while allowing them to further integrate within the operating system in a more seamless fashion. Web apps would have their own dedicated app icons. Web apps would have access to information on the device (if explicit permission was granted by the user, of course). Also, these Web apps would be able to easily communicate with other apps on the device.

The other solution — which involves the ability for Web apps to notify users on mobile devices — requires efforts by either the mobile operating systems themselves or third-party developers. Mobile operating systems could provide ways for Web apps to natively notify users that something has happened, thus providing seamless notifications like native mobile applications currently enjoy. But if that doesn’t happen, a third-party developer could create a notification system/application for the top mobile operating systems and provide ways for Web apps to send notifications to this system/application It would then forward those notifications to the operating system and the user.

But until these two things happen, I see a dark future for the open Web. Sure, the Web — along with HTML5, CSS 3, JavaScript, and other technologies — might provide developers with an ability to create incredible, innovative, beautiful applications that blow away anything you see natively on iOS or Android. But if these Web apps don’t have a single access point to the user on their devices, none of it will matter.