The Battle of Internet: App vs. Web

It’s been twenty years since the first web pages appeared. To begin with, the web was not taken seriously and corporate web sites were mostly information sites, online brochures as Douglas Adams called them. Slowly the web became the primary way to use computers. Today, many people use the web to do their banking, bookings of travel arrangements or tickets for concerts, and ordering games, magazines and books. Applications such as Google docs are web based, and so are music sites, and even movies have found their way into the browser. Now we are seeing a shift again to applications or apps. With the mobile smartphone as a software platform, apps are taking over the web. More and more people use apps on their smartphones to access the services of the Internet. It seems that the battle is now between the app and the web.

The early web did not pose much threat to the then existing computer infrastructure. The dominant model of computing in the early 1990s was just stand-alone GUI programs, mostly applications written for Microsoft Windows. Networked applications were primarily client-server applications, requiring a software install on each machine. When web based systems started to appear they lacked in interactive user experience since each web page was reloaded upon every user action. But the web had a clear advantage. Building a web app required a server-only application and no client since the web browser was the client. Maintaining multiple versions of clients and communication protocols was not needed. This had huge benefits but did not come free since browser compatibility became an issue instead. With advances in the use of web technologies, such as Ajax, interactive web applications became a reality.

When the iPhone appeared the mobile phone became a software platform. Summer 2008, the Apple App Store became available and thousand of developers saw this as an opportunity and an adopters market emerged. Others, like Google with Android, followed and soon the mobile app became a practical way to provide software to end users. Mobile Apps have exploded in availability. By May 2011, Apple had 380,000 apps in their App Store, Google Android had 295,000, and even Microsoft had 17,500 apps.

The rise of apps have changed how people use their phone. It has turned into an information and processing tool. According to mobile maker Ericsson, mobile data overtook voice in December 2009. And this trend will continue. It is predicted that mobile data will grow 300% by 2015. Mobile Commerce Daily says that a purchase is made every second through eBay’s mobile apps.

The mobile phone has huge advantages over the laptops (or desktops). People have their phones on them all the time. We don’t leave the house without it and all trough the day, many people grab it to check mail, or play games. Of course the mobile can use the mobile web browser for all this, but the growth in mobile data use has a lot to do with apps. Well designed mobile apps are also focused, making the most-used features easily available and ignores not-needed features. As more functionality becomes easily available in mobile apps, more and more people are getting comfortable with doing business transaction using the mobile device.

Where will this take the web? Some even say that the Web is dead (Wired article: The Web is Dead, Long live the Internet) but others point to HTML5. The trend now is clearly towards the apps. However, we must keep in mind that technology follows cycles and now we are swinging to the app, just like we saw client-server replace dumb terminals, only to see the web take over. It is not likely that the app will overtake the web, it is more likely that these will coexist, as each has their benefits. There is also the incentive to bypass Apple’s approval process and avoid the 30% cut they take in sold apps.

Furthermore, we might see some web-based developer toolkits making highly interactive HTML5 web apps for the mobile phone. Indeed, there are rumors that Facebook is working on such a project. We could also see Microsoft release some tools for making HTML5 apps for their Windows Phone 7 platform. The battle of the Internet could become interesting.