Future Tense

The Web Is Dying! Wait, How Are You Reading This?

You don’t need a Web browser to use Facebook—but you still need the Web.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Web is dying! I read it today in the Wall Street Journal, so it must be true. I also read it two weeks ago in the New York Times, so it must really be true. Actually, as Quartz’s Zach Seward reminds me, I also read it on the cover of Wired four years ago, so I guess at this point the real mystery is how it has even survived this long.

Come to think of it, I read all three of those articles on the Web. I guess I got to them just in time.

There is no shortage of theories as to why the Web is dying. “Apps are killing it,” explains Christopher Mims in the WSJ. Banner ads are an accomplice, argues Farhad Manjoo in the Times. But really it’s smartphones, The Next Web said in May. Or maybe it’s Google.

Anyway, it’s definitely dying. For that we have “mountains of evidence,” Mims assures us. Unfortunately he only had enough space in his latest column for one data point: “On phones, 86 percent of our time is spent in apps, and just 14 percent is spent on the Web, according to mobile-analytics company Flurry.” Interestingly, that’s the same data point that prompted the “Web is dying” post in The Next Web, along with similar posts in The Guardian, Forbes, and numerous other publications.

By now, Flurry’s annual survey has been lending itself to headlines about the death of the Web for several years running. Here’s one in GigaOm from 2012; here’s one in VentureBeat from 2013.

Why the Times and the WSJ are jumping on this bandwagon just now is not fully clear. Perhaps they’ve both been chatting with venture capitalist Chris Dixon, who wrote his own influential post on the decline of the mobile Web in April—again, citing data from Flurry—and is the first person quoted in both Mims’ and Manjoo’s columns. To be fair, Manjoo did link to one non-Flurry data source: an August Comscore report, which found that “app usage” makes up 52 percent of all digital media engagement in the United States.

It’s true that both Comscore and the Flurry report present compelling evidence that people are spending a large and growing share of their online hours using mobile apps like Facebook and Instagram, rather than Web browsers like Firefox and Safari. But it’s quite a leap to conclude from this that the Web is dying.

In fact, a closer look at the numbers reveals that the Web is still growing. Comscore finds that time spent on the mobile Web grew 17 percent between June 2013 and June 2014. True, app usage grew faster—52 percent, by Comscore’s reckoning. But as Quartz’s Seward points out, “the overall pie is growing,” and mobile apps have been “largely additive to the online experience.” That makes sense when you consider that the “mobile apps” category includes mobile games, a fast-growing time sink that has little to do with the “apps vs. Web” dichotomy.

Seward also nails the second big reason to be skeptical of the “Web is dying” line: A good portion of the time that people are spending in apps like Facebook and Twitter is actually spent using in-app browsers to view Web content. Here Seward cites tech blogger John Gruber, who responded to Dixon back in April by proposing a more useful working definition of “the Web:”

We shouldn’t think of “the Web” as only what renders in web browsers. We should think of the Web as anything transmitted using HTTP and HTTPS. Apps and websites are peers, not competitors. They’re all just clients to the same services.

Gruber is right. The Web isn’t going away. Rather, the way we experience it is diversifying, with apps now functioning as prominent portals to Web content alongside conventional browsers.

What is ending, if anything, is a relatively brief period in the history of personal computing in which a single app—the Web browser—dominated the time we spent on our devices.

Recall that 20 years ago, our computers were also essentially a collection of separate apps made by different software companies, only back then we called them applications. Between roughly 2000 and 2010, the Web subsumed much of what we had previously done either in applications or offline, and our browsers became our primary portals to all of it. (Games and productivity apps like Word and Photoshop were among the exceptions.) We neglected our desktop apps and started organizing our bookmarks.  

Now that our apps can tap into the Web too, we’re recalling that it’s not so bad to open Facebook when we want to see our news feeds, Gmail when we want to read our mail, and Spotify when we want to listen to music, rather than typing in a different dot-com address for each. Not only is it easier, but each app can tailor its presentation of the Web to suit the specific purposes for which we use it.

Mims and Dixon are right that this poses challenges for openness and innovation, especially when a company like Apple wields so much control over its app ecosystem. But they’re wrong to imply that every company shares a vested interest in walling off its own portion of the Internet—or that idealistic nonprofits and standards bodies like Mozilla and the World Wide Web Consortium are the only possible guardians of openness and interoperability.

On the contrary, companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have ambitions—and missions—that require the ability to transcend proprietary boundaries. To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful; to make the world more open and connected; to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers: These are not altruistic ideals, but potent, multibillion-dollar business propositions—and none would be feasible without the Web.

In short, the Web as we know it may be threatened by the rise of mobile devices and apps. But if you believe that it’s dying, then I’ve got a proprietary Wall Street Journal app to sell you—and a New York Times app, and a Slate app, and…let’s just say the list goes on.