WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Web Is Dying; Apps Are Killing It
Tech’s Open Range Is Losing Out to Walled Gardens
Updated Nov. 17, 2014 2:53 p.m. ET
The Web—that thin veneer of human-readable design on top of the machine babble that constitutes the Internet—is dying. And the way it’s dying has farther-reaching implications than almost anything else in technology today.
Think about your mobile phone. All those little chiclets on your screen are apps, not websites, and they work in ways that are fundamentally different from the way the Web does.
Mountains of data tell us that, in aggregate, we are spending time in apps that we once spent surfing the Web. We’re in love with apps, and they’ve taken over. On phones, 86% of our time is spent in apps, and just 14% is spent on the Web, according to mobile-analytics company Flurry.
This might seem like a trivial change. In the old days, we printed out directions from the website MapQuest that were often wrong or confusing. Today we call up Waze on our phones and are routed around traffic in real time. For those who remember the old way, this is a miracle.
Everything about apps feels like a win for users—they are faster and easier to use than what came before. But underneath all that convenience is something sinister: the end of the very openness that allowed Internet companies to grow into some of the most powerful or important companies of the 21st century.
Take that most essential of activities for e-commerce: accepting credit cards. When Amazon.com made its debut on the Web, it had to pay a few percentage points in transaction fees. But Apple takes 30% of every transaction conducted within an app sold through its app store, and “very few businesses in the world can withstand that haircut,” says Chris Dixon, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz.
App stores, which are shackled to particular operating systems and devices, are walled gardens where Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon get to set the rules. For a while, that meant Apple banned Bitcoin, an alternative currency that many technologists believe is the most revolutionary development on the Internet since the hyperlink. Apple regularly bans apps that offend its politics, taste, or compete with its own software and services.
But the problem with apps runs much deeper than the ways they can be controlled by centralized gatekeepers. The Web was invented by academics whose goal was sharing information. Tim Berners-Lee was just trying to make it easy for scientists to publish data they were putting together during construction of CERN, the world’s biggest particle accelerator.
No one involved knew they were giving birth to the biggest creator and destroyer of wealth anyone had ever seen. So, unlike with app stores, there was no drive to control the early Web. Standards bodies arose—like the United Nations, but for programming languages. Companies that would have liked to wipe each other off the map were forced, by the very nature of the Web, to come together and agree on revisions to the common language for Web pages.
The result: Anyone could put up a Web page or launch a new service, and anyone could access it. Google was born in a garage. Facebook was born in Mark Zuckerberg ’s dorm room.
But app stores don’t work like that. The lists of most-downloaded apps now drive consumer adoption of those apps. Search on app stores is broken.
On phones, 86% of our time is spent in apps, and just 14% is spent on the Web, according to mobile-analytics company Flurry. Bloomberg News
The Web is built of links, but apps don’t have a functional equivalent. Facebook and Google are trying to fix this by creating a standard called “deep linking,” but there are fundamental technical barriers to making apps behave like websites.
The Web was intended to expose information. It was so devoted to sharing above all else that it didn’t include any way to pay for things—something some of its early architects regret to this day, since it forced the Web to survive on advertising.
The Web wasn’t perfect, but it created a commons where people could exchange information and goods. It forced companies to build technology that was explicitly designed to be compatible with competitors’ technology. Microsoft’s Web browser had to faithfully render Apple’s website. If it didn’t, consumers would use another one, such as Firefox or Google’s Chrome, which has since taken over.
Today, as apps take over, the Web’s architects are abandoning it. Google’s newest experiment in email nirvana, called Inbox, is available for both Android and Apple’s iOS, but on the Web it doesn’t work in any browser except Chrome. The process of creating new Web standards has slowed to a crawl. Meanwhile, companies with app stores are devoted to making those stores better than—and entirely incompatible with—app stores built by competitors.
“In a lot of tech processes, as things decline a little bit, the way the world reacts is that it tends to accelerate that decline,” says Mr. Dixon. “If you go to any Internet startup or large company, they have large teams focused on creating very high quality native apps, and they tend to de-prioritize the mobile Web by comparison.”
Many industry watchers think this is just fine. Ben Thompson, an independent tech and mobile analyst, told me he sees the dominance of apps as the “natural state” for software.
Ruefully, I have to agree. The history of computing is companies trying to use their market power to shut out rivals, even when it’s bad for innovation and the consumer.
That doesn’t mean the Web will disappear. Facebook and Google still rely on it to furnish a stream of content that can be accessed from within their apps. But even the Web of documents and news items could go away. Facebook has announced plans to host publishers’ work within Facebook itself, leaving the Web nothing but a curiosity, a relic haunted by hobbyists.
I think the Web was a historical accident, an anomalous instance of a powerful new technology going almost directly from a publicly funded research lab to the public. It caught existing juggernauts like Microsoft flat-footed, and it led to the kind of disruption today’s most powerful tech companies would prefer to avoid.
It isn’t that today’s kings of the app world want to quash innovation, per se. It is that in the transition to a world in which services are delivered through apps, rather than the Web, we are graduating to a system that makes innovation, serendipity and experimentation that much harder for those who build things that rely on the Internet. And today, that is pretty much everyone.
—Follow Christopher Mims on Twitter @Mims; write to him at email@example.com.
Tethered to home,
Ripens and falls away,
Hastens the process of death.
The branch renews,
Sprouts a new fruit,
Which drops away
Toward imminent death.
Home dies not,
Only its offspring.
Pome, an apple,
Having many seeds,
Chambers beneath a leathery roof.
The moist blood-fruits,
Like newborns into a home,
Become tasty to this world—
Home and offspring
Are consumed by this earth.
Home dies not,
Only its offspring.
The tree remains,
Tall and steadfast,
Torched or poisoned.
Yet another root snakes upward,
With rains from spring.
A branch extends again
Within a family tree—
S.A. Bort 3 November 2014
This is a book review from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal which focuses at the heart of the online-freedom issue. Who has a right to tell us what we can blog, when we can blog or if we can blog at all? The government? The private owners of corporate giants such as Facebook or Apple? Do we have a right to blog free of any censorship, fears or threats? Did the Egyptian government, in January 2011, have the right to order internet providers to “pull the plug” on net communications for five days? Do Facebook and Google have the right to sell for profit our personal and private information, as they now do, for use by advertisers, law enforcement and artificial-intelligence techs who need the info for human behavioral studies? These are questions that can and should be asked.
I’ve interspersed my own comments (bracketed and in italics) between the article’s paragraphs. —SB
FEBRUARY 15, 2012
Handmaidens to Censorship:
The threat to online freedom may come from governments, of course, but also from private companies doing the state’s dirty work. Luke Allnutt reviews “Consent of the Networked.”
By LUKE ALLNUTT
With mounting street protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government, in January 2011, decided to pull the plug on the Internet and mobile telecommunications *. It wasn’t difficult. The authorities reportedly asked the country’s Internet providers, including a joint venture with the U.K.-based Vodafone, to turn off their services. If the companies didn’t want to break Egyptian law, they had no choice but to comply. For five days, the Egyptian Internet was virtually blacked out.
[* Here, there was implicit governmental intimidation to shut down freedom of speech. There has been much talk since the Egyptian riots of the power that technology now wields toward allowing instantaneous organizing of dissenters. Who should own that power to cut off free speech to both consenters and dissenters alike? —SB]
In “Consent of the Networked,” Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the New America Foundation, argues that it is governments working in collaboration with corporations that represent the greatest threat to Internet freedom. Internet control, she makes clear, is about more than censorship and filtering. It is also about shaping narratives and getting private companies to do the state’s dirty work.
Ms. MacKinnon deploys the phrase “digital bonapartism” to describe the policy of strong-arm leaders who use the Internet to seek legitimacy, for instance by crowdsourcing input on new laws or using pro-government bloggers to slur out-of-favor officials. Such leaders may not block Internet sites outright, but they may well intimidate or threaten bloggers and Internet journalists * “if they push the envelope too far.” Ms. MacKinnon sees this tendency in Russia and China, although she shows that the Internet in China is more varied and less well policed than is often portrayed.
[* Note that just three months ago, our Department of Homeland Security obtained the right to “monitor” all data that comes from journalists, writers or bloggers. “Previously established guidelines within the administration say that data could only be collected under authorization set forth by written code, but the new provisions in the NOC’s [National Operations Center] write-up means that any reporter, whether someone along the lines of Walter Cronkite or a budding blogger, can be victimized by the agency.” ( http://rt.com/usa/news/homeland-security-journalists-monitoring-321/ ). —SB]
Ms. MacKinnon worries about Internet freedom in Western democracies as well. She cites Sen. Joe Lieberman’s introduction, with Sen. Susan Collins, of a cybersecurity bill in the Senate in 2010 that critics complained would have granted the federal government an emergency Internet “kill switch.” Sen. Lieberman also drew flak in 2010 for allegedly complaining to Amazon.com when a service run by the company was used by WikiLeaks for its online publication of U.S. diplomatic cables. Amazon cut off WikiLeaks, * but the company denied that it was influenced by Sen. Lieberman. Around the same time, PayPal and MasterCard ended relationships with WikiLeaks, and Twitter data related to the group was subpoenaed. Ms. MacKinnon says that the response to WikiLeaks “highlights a troubling murkiness, opacity, and lack of public accountability in the power relationships between government and Internet-related companies.”
[* Whatever one may believe about WikiLeaks, this would be akin to me self-publishing a book through Amazon.com that the government felt was contrary to their partisan ideology. The government then would make their displeasure with me known to Amazon.com, PayPal and MasterCard. Those three private, non-governmental companies would then cut me off. If they can do it to WikiLeaks, they can do it to anyone. —SB]
Consent of the Networked
By Rebecca MacKinnon
(Basic, 294 pages, $26.99)
If governments are the malevolent sovereigns seeking to enclose the digital commons, then big tech companies are sometimes the obedient vassals keeping the peasants in line. Businesses can be roped into doing the censorship work for governments—and supplying states with sophisticated surveillance equipment as well. Internet companies can use our data in ways beyond our control and without our knowledge * and give up that data to prying government agencies. Big tech companies—e.g., Internet service providers or social networks—are what Ms. MacKinnon calls the “stewards and handmaidens” of Internet censorship.
[Recently, Yuri Milner, the CEO of Digital Sky Technologies made public his belief that Facebook will eventually become a “basis for artificial intelligence.” This is due to the fact that “Facebook is the central nexus of social data and the social graph; it is the online personification of personalities, interests, friendships and more.” [ http://mashable.com/2010/11/16/could-facebook-become-the-basis-for-artificial-intelligence/ ] What better way to mimic or create artificial behavior than to monitor the behavior of humans through their online social actions (what we “like,” what we buy, what we listen to or watch or read, our educational levels, how we speak to each other, how open we are, how private we try to be, how radical we are . . . For a concise and readable history of artificial intelligence, see: http://library.thinkquest.org/2705/history.html . —SB]
But what happens when those stewards and handmaidens become sovereigns in their own right, the curators of what news we read, what movies we see and what protests we attend? Ms. MacKinnon is concerned that when closed proprietary systems—such as Facebook or Apple’s App Store—dominate the Web, free speech will suffer. She highlights Apple, which has been criticized for banning apps it finds objectionable, including a cartoon version of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (featuring some nudity) and an app ridiculing public figures. There is a danger, Ms. MacKinnon says, that political activists will become “hostage to the arbitrary whims of corporate self-governance.”
This claim cuts to the heart of the debate about the future of the Internet. Private services like YouTube have every right to choose what content they carry, just as Wal-Mart or an organic knitwear store has every right to be selective about what products it sells. What concerns advocates of the open Web is that tech giants like Facebook or Google are so colossal that they are more like public utilities; when it comes to the freedom of speech and assembly, they function as town squares * instead of privately owned shopping malls.
[* Recent American elections have utilized to great effect the concept of online town halls, where voters from every nook and cranny of the country can listen in and join in, as long as they have an internet connection. Here, it’s a tool to be used to any politician’s benefit. The broader discussion, though, is whether the same politician, once elected, can shut down the town hall discussion if it begins to smell of “those nasty far-right tea partiers,” or likewise, “those nasty far-left socialists,” depending, of course, on what political ideology the winning politician gives allegiance to. —SB]
Ms. MacKinnon says that leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has described regulation of the Internet is a moral imperative, “offer a false binary choice between their preferred solutions on the one hand and an anarchic state of nature in cyberspace on the other.” She’s right. The problem is that many thinkers on the information-wants-to-be-free side of the debate present the same binary choice, seeing almost any state control of the Internet, or any government attempt to protect intellectual property, or even the attempts of private social networks to get people to log in with their real names, * as affronts to democracy comparable with the worst excesses of repressive regimes.
[* Here is a great example of the needed balance between privacy and security. On one hand, the idea of logging in with an alias name, address and all other personal info sounds not bad at all. On the other hand, there are more than a handful of characters out there who would love anonymous online access for evil intent. The farther right you go politically, the more liberty you find at the expense of security. The farther left you go, the more control you get at the expense of liberty. A Barack Obama would seek the most governmental control. A Romney, Santorum or Gingrich would seek the most corporate, private-interests control. A Ron Paul would seek the least governmental or corporate control and the most personal liberty. —SB]
Luckily, Ms. MacKinnon’s analysis is more nuanced and balanced than that, and “Consent of the Networked” is an excellent survey of the Internet’s major fault lines. To protect online freedom, she favors grass-roots movements of empowered users pushing back against corporations. She argues that companies must be convinced, through multi-stakeholder efforts like the Global Network Initiative, “that respecting and protecting their users’ universally recognized human rights is in their long-term commercial self-interest.”
Advocating more activism and more pressure on companies might not sound particularly startling, but already such tactics seem to be bearing fruit. A couple of months ago, after pressure from nongovernmental agencies, Western companies stopped building a surveillance system for the Syrian regime *. In the tech industry, the idea of corporate social responsibility is still fairly new. But a look at the successes achieved by the environmental movement shows that pressuring companies and raising consumer awareness make a lot of sense.
* [2.16.2012 UPDATE: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been responsible, under his rule, for the deaths of more than 7,400 of his people. The United Nations (UN), just hours ago, condemned Assad for human rights violations and called for him to step down. And here are “Western companies” having to be pressured to stop “building a surveillance system for the Syrian regime.” Not exactly social responsibility. —SB]
Mr. Allnutt writes about digital topics for the Tangled Web blog of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
[For two recent and outstanding books on the myriad of relevant issues revolving around the internet, see: Brockman, John, ed. Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?: The Net’s Impact on our Minds and Future. Harper/Perennial, 2011, and: Levy, Steven. In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives. Simon & Schuster, 2011. For insight into the present and future of artificial intelligence, see: Kurzweil, Ray. The Age Of Spiritual Machines: When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence. 1999. Penguin, 2000. —SB]