Photo by mkorchia

In a new Wired magazine article called The Web Is Dead, Long Live The Internet, Editor in chief Chris Anderson (author of ‘The Long Tail‘ and ‘Free‘) declares the demise of the web browser in favour of dedicated apps on devices such as iPads and iPhones (no mention of Android handsets, then).

It’s an interesting article – or rather, the first half is a reasonably convincing and interesting article, and the second half is a slightly less interesting, less convincing one. But Anderson’s technologically determinismistic search for cause and massive societal, cultural and economic effect gets in the way – and he ends up saying little, which is a shame, because there’s actually a good point to be made here – though it is one I’ve sort of made before.

In short:
1) the internet is like electricity;
2) individual pieces of software that use the internet (browsers, email clients, iTunes, etc) are like appliances that plug into that electricity; and
3) you CAN dry your hair with a toaster, but it’s not the best tool for the job.

Short for appliances
I’ve written before about my own preferred set of internet-enabled applications (or appliances, if you prefer) that I use. Here’s a quick list of what’s on my laptop, for instance:

For reading RSS feeds, I use NetNewsWire.
For email, I use Mac Mail.
For writing blog posts (like this one) I use MarsEdit.
For to-do lists, I use Things.
For moving files around, I use DropBox.
For finding and downloading images like the one above, I use Viewfinder.
For uploading video, I use the Vimeo Desktop uploader.
For Twitter, I use Tweetie.
For listening to music I don’t already own, I use Spotify.

…and so on. And I’ve also talked about apps I use on the iPhone – though this collection changes pretty regularly, as I fine tune the set of tools I like to use for different tasks.

It’s perhaps significant that many of them are portable versions of the software I use on my laptop, rather than iPhone-specific applications. I use NetNewsWire, 1Password, Last.fm, Spotify, Twitter, Mail, Dropbox, Evernote and Things, for example.

But as Anderson points out, although it’s something of a Swiss Army knife of software applications – the web browser is just that: an application – just as the more specialised, dedicated apps are, and it has at least one function that it performs better than any other appliance yet invented: reading web pages.

Don’t need a special hammer for 2″ nails
While we live in a Web 2.0 world of connection, user-generated content, mediated interpersonal communication and doing things on the internet (not, as Anderson suggests, ‘just web 1.0 that works’), there are still quite a few HTML-encoded, hyperlinked webpages that are just for reading, and perhaps responding to.

The stuff that’s generally considered to be 2.0 about the web does tend to fit the world of apps more readily. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr (though arguably, that still works better in a browser), YouTube (likewise) and Last.fm all have individual iPhone applications. But where the web comes into its own is in a context like this one right here. Where you’re reading words that have been written by someone who both has something to say – and a ‘publish’ button.

There’s simply no need (or demand) for an Andrew Dubber’s blog app – or even a WordPress blog reader app – because the browser already does that job extremely well.

Next to sending and receiving emails (there’s an app for that), reading web pages is probably the most common web use out there. And web browsers are currently the most efficient means by which to do that.

And while yes, of course it’s possible to read this whole web post in your RSS aggregator (I don’t truncate my feed) and some people get it via email – these are neither mainstream, nor indeed terribly common. Most people who read this blog continue to do so on the website itself, and so can enjoy my typographical and layout choices.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that in all likelihood, most people who use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr continue to do so using the dedicated webpages, and they access them using a browser. That doesn’t mean that these people are behind the curve, necessarily – though I suspect most of them have spent less time paying close attention to their online workflow – and more time just ‘using the internet’ as it suits them.

Because as simple as an app may be – and some are very simple (the LinkedIn app, for instance, is a vast usability improvement on the website) – it does potentially represent a learning curve for the user. Or just, as one friend put it, “more stuff”.

Because over time, and thanks in part to people like Jakob Nielsen, there has emerged a common web design and usability vocabulary. Typically, if you know how to use a few websites, you know how to use them all. Currently, apps have their own internal logic and navigation systems that while usually simple, and dictated by the platform itself (iPhone apps have already established a set of navigational conventions), are interpreted by many users as ‘just another thing to learn’, when email and web have been more than enough to deal with, thanks very much.

It’s the future, it’s inevitable and it’s now
While Anderson allows that perhaps the web browser won’t die out entirely, he a) overstates the demise of the browser; b) overlooks the fact that there are an awful lot of webpages already out there; and c) cites the trend as an inevitable consequence (and triumph) of market capitalism.

This was all inevitable. It is the cycle of capitalism. The story of industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over control. A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others. It happens every time.

Perhaps. Actually, what also tends to happen a lot is that there are unexpected and disruptive technologies that radically transform both the media environment, and the business models that spring up around them.

Those business models are neither necessary, nor uniformly monopolistic, because those technologies are not uniformly profitable nor adopted by the masses. If only a thousand flowers bloom, then you might get a nice cottage industry out of it, but it’s hardly going to cause waves in the world of corporate ownership.

The only reason that a shift to apps and away from the browser could be said to be ‘inevitable’, was because it was actually observable – and has been for quite some time. In other words – it had already happened. That may be the most reliable method of ‘prediction’ certainly – but it doesn’t really count as describing the future.

Browsers were not, by any stretch, the first internet application, and nor were they the only ones at any point in their history. Anyone with any familiarity with IM platforms, Voice-Over-IP software, streaming media players, email programmes and FTP clients would make a distinction between ‘the web’ and ‘the internet’ if they paused to think about it for a moment.

Anderson’s rear-view mirror
Perhaps where Anderson’s article becomes most problematic is in his summary, where he confuses the medium with the content:

We are returning to a world that already exists — one in which we chase the transformative effects of music and film instead of our brief (relatively speaking) flirtation with the transformative effects of the Web.

In fact, the transformative effects are embedded and are becoming, finally, domesticated. That is – the internetness of online video, film, music and text is no longer quite so remarkable. We’re soaking in it, and we’re accustomed to it. But that does not mean a return to older media – but that those media have themselves been mediated.

The older medium, as McLuhan puts it, becomes the content of the newer medium.

But we tend to understand any new medium in terms of its predecessors. Like driving while looking in a rear-view mirror. Anderson expresses our ‘return to a world that already exists’ as if the internet has simply become a tube through which we get to look at older media. It’s not.

It’s the thing we’re experiencing – and the success of some types of apps (say – the Wired iPhone app) over another (the web browser) is neither indicative of a return to passive entertainment types that we used to prefer (and which have themselves been radically transformed by technological innovation in composition, production, distribution and consumption), nor is it a victory of monopolistic market capital logic over what are, essentially, social spaces.

Yes, the phenomenon is important, to the extent that perhaps too much attention has been paid to the web as a focus of study, rather than the environmental enabling technology of the internet – but it’s an ongoing part of the digital media environment we’ve been steeped in for a good 20 years now – and the ‘demise’ of the browser is neither really terribly surprising nor is it radically significant.

Nor is it, come to think of it, real.

One last point
Anderson is right: there is a change going on and it is a significant one. We’re moving from one platform in favour of a multiplicity of others. But that platform is not the web, and the others are not the apps.

What we’re moving away from (not entirely, of course, but with greater frequency, and significantly) is the personal computer of CPU, screen, mouse and keyboard, and towards interfaces that are portable, integrated and are interacted with differently.

The tool that, for a while, was the one main device that was powerful enough for us to use for both our work and our play, is now one of many devices that we use as we see fit for the different purposes that we have. We’re simply adjusting those ratios, as we move from device to device. Apps work better on phones than browsers do.

Anderson is saying ‘look at all the apps!’ without really noticing that it’s an iPhone and not a PC in his hand, or thinking about what that means.


 

Incidentally, don’t read this post as a critique of Anderson himself, who has written some of the most insightful and provocative articles on web culture, and whose The Long Tail book I insist my students read. Rather, this is just a flag to point to a bigger picture than this one particular article outlines.