March 23, 2012 at 12:01 AM ET
An app for weather. An app for banking. An app for news, for sports, for games, for travel, for department stores, for insurance companies, for ….wait: Who needs the Web?
As more of us turn our lives over to apps, or programs, that we download onto our smartphones, tablets, and now some TVs, our reliance on the Web itself is changing, says a new report on the future of the Web from Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University.
This change is not only a shift in how we're getting our information -- on smaller, more mobile devices -- but a change in the way we've been sharing information in the last 15 to 20 years, via the Web. Pew and Elon University interviewed more than 1,000 tech experts and critics from the public and private sector, as well as from universities and think tanks about what the Web will look like in the year 2020. And for some, the rise of the app is diminishing the Web as we know it.
“Apps are like cable channels — closed, proprietary, and cleaned-up experiences," Susan Crawford, former White House technology adviser, and now a professor at Harvard, said in the report.
"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."
A kind of tipping point may have been reached last June, Pew said, when researchers reported the amount of time Americans "spent on apps began to outpace the time spent on the desktop or mobile Web," an average of 81 minutes a day with apps compared to 74 minutes a day on the Web.
By December, the gap was even wider: 72 minutes a day on the Web compared to 94 minutes a day with apps, according to comScore, Alexa and Flurry Analytics.
Along those lines, "the boom in mobile connectivity has been accompanied by a boom in innovation and sales" of apps, Pew said.Earlier this month, Apple announced 25 billion apps have been downloaded since it opened its App Store in 2008, which made it easy, inexpensive and fast to download programs tailored to a user's interests onto their mobile devices.
Google's Android Market, recently renamed Google Play, reached 10 billion downloads by last December, Pew said, "and users have been downloading apps at a rate of 1 billion a month."
Jeffrey Alexander, a senior technology analyst at SRI International, said the Web "will come to resemble a segment within the 'app economy' more than the reverse. 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."
"The trends are quite clear," said Pew. "Mobile tools such as smartphones, tablets, netbooks and laptop computers are now a primary source of Internet connectivity in highly developed nations, and the uptake of technology tools in less-developed regions of the world has also been dominated by small, wireless devices. The latest surveys of American adults by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project show that nearly two-thirds connect to the Web via a smartphone, tablet computer, or an on-the-go laptop computer."
Despite the trend, 59 percent of Pew and Elon University's respondents agree with this statement that by 2020, the Web will be "stronger than ever in users' lives," a place where "most people do most of their work, play, communication, and content creation."
Another 35 percent agreed that eight years from now, "most people will prefer to use specific applications (apps) accessible by Internet connection to accomplish most online work, play, communication, and content creation. The ease of use and perceived security and quality-assurance characteristics of apps will be seen as superior when compared with the open Web."
Six percent did not respond to the question at all.
The Web's open nature, its importance as a means of communication and a marketplace of ideas, will win out, said Jerry Michalski, a consultant at the Institute for the Future, in the report.
"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," he said.
But there's no question, concerns are there.
"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," said Seth Finkelstein, a civil libertarian programmer, and past winner of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award, in the report.
"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."