As the World Wide Web turned 20 last week, I worried a bit about its future. A growing number of people these days use mobile devices to go online and, instead of visiting websites, use dedicated apps to access content and services.
Many newspapers, for example, have their own apps. You can still access their websites on mobile devices but are encouraged to use the app instead. The same is true for other things we typically do online, like accessing Facebook or Twitter or even running productivity software. If I'm at my PC and need access to a spreadsheet, I can use my browser to access a free one on Google drive. I don't even need a world-clock -- if I need to know the time in Moscow, I just ask Google.
What I find interesting about the mobile app world is that it's a giant step backward to the days before the World Wide Web. Back then, if you wanted to access online content, you had a separate program for many of the sites. Prodigy, America Online and CompuServe all had their own programs. Anyone old enough to remember the 1990s probably recalls getting disks in the mail with AOL's software. There were also some general purpose communications programs like PC-Talk or Microphone that turned your PC or Mac into a terminal to scroll text on bulletin boards, and services that didn't require their own software.
Though mobile apps tend to be easier to download and easier to use than those early PC and Mac programs, there is a learning curve for each new app you download. Plus, there is the annoyance of having to download an app every time you want to access a new service. Having lots of apps also increases the load on your device's storage and processor (if they're running) and increases the risk of winding up with apps that have bugs, security flaws or potentially even malware.
What's more, almost every time you load in a new app that takes you online, you have to either set up a new account, enter your existing credentials or "sign-in with Facebook." And if you do sign in with Facebook, you need to make sure the app won't spam all your friends by sharing the news you've signed up for or -- even worse -- updating your friends every time you use the app.
The other problem with apps is that they're not trivial to create. Yes, there are tens of thousands of people who can build apps, but there are billions of people on earth -- myself included -- who don't have the skills, tools or time to build their own app. But when it comes to websites, there are lots of easy ways to create your own, including free blogging tools like Blogger.com, WordPress.com, and Tumblr.com. Even in the early days of the Web before we had blogging tools, all Windows users got a free Web creation tool called FrontPage (I wish that still came with Windows) that made it easy to build sites.
Another issue with apps is that developers must create separate ones for each operating system. An app written for Apple's iOS for iPhone and iPad won't automatically work on Android devices. That makes it harder and more expensive for companies that offer apps, and it means that some of us have to go without access to services if there doesn't happen to be an app for our device.
That's a big problem for users of the less popular mobile platforms, like Windows mobile and Blackberry, as well as for companies that would like to serve those users but have to prioritize their development budget toward the much bigger markets of Android and iOS users. The Balkanization of apps discriminates against makers and users of new or less popular platforms and almost guarantees that we'll continue to see two platforms dominate the mobile market.
I'm not longing for the "good old days." I don't want to go back to my first 300 baud modem that scrolled text on the screen at a glacial pace. And I certainly don't miss those very primitive services I wrote about in my first PC communications book back in 1984 or in my second book in 1994 about AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe and this complicated and arcane thing called "The Internet." But I am arguing we shouldn't abandon the World Wide Web just because it's reached the ripe old age of 20, even if there are newer and sexier tools out there.
Contact Larry Magid at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.