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Apps Are Killing the Web

When I was working as a market strategy associate for a satellite communications company earlier in my career (back in 2010) we made what we thought was a bold prediction about the world wide web. We proposed the idea that the world would abandon the web, and the open internet, and go into the arms of applications (apps). The apps would be these meticulous maintained digital gardens of walled content that users could not resist. The programmed rules of navigation that are built into the UI of apps would keep the masses entertained, and unknowingly a voluntary captive audience.

Back in 2010 the idea of apps ruling the internet sounded crazy. After all apps had only recently become popular based on the success of the iPhone and App Store. Furthermore, the iPhone had only been released 2 and a half years earlier than our prediction. This idea of the app based internet formed our thought patterns in regards to deciding on strategic decisions for connectivity on satellites in space.

I’m no longer working directly in a market strategy group, however, I spend quite a bit of my time researching and thinking about the mobile application marketplace. As you may, or may not, know I co-founded Wafer Messenger and it’s part of my job to monitor market changes in regards to the application driven internet economy.

You may be asking at this point, what is the difference between the web and the internet? Great question imaginary antagonist in my head!

In brief, the web is the idea that anyone can have a website with a URL address. This URL can be clicked from websites (in the form of links) or appear in search (such as Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc). In the early 90’s the internet browser company Netscape banked on the promise that their browser was the internet user’s portal into the internet. Web browsers would be your point of entiry to find all you needed on the web based internet.

Now in 2018 things are much different than Netscape predicted. Instead of websites being distributed amongst the connected internet in a mostly equal way, we have app-websites and mobile-apps that absorb an enormous amount of the internet’s traffic. Instead of the internet being a utopia where anyone can join, it has become a massive oligopoly of internet company behemoths. Now the Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, Google (Youtube), and similar have the lion’s share of internet traffic and attention.

The internet is no longer synonymous with the web (as Netscape proposed). The internet is now become more of an exchange of bits or transmission of data from one giant internet conglomerate to the next. If parts of the web are accessed from within one of these internet conglomerates it’s displayed in such a way that retains user attention. For example, lets compare old web based internet to new app based internet.

Web based internet… Person arrives to Google > searches for topic > search results arrive > user clicks on link > user is transported to the external website with content. Google no longer has attention until the user needs to search again.


App based internet… Person arrives to Facebook > looks at news feed OR searches > results arrive based on your friends, preferences, previous choices > user clicks link > user goes to Facebook browser which hosts web views. User clicks the back arrow and remains in the Facebook ecosystem.

Both the old and new internet examples above are enabled by the internet. The difference with the new internet is you never leave the platform you started from. The attention of the user is never lost in the content discovery and navigation process.

The application driven internet is inherently restricted to allow for user attention to be retained. Applications only need the internet to transmit data to the user and back while the user is navigating the respective app platform.

The web internet way of driving traffic that bounces around freely does not work well in the app internet market. The app internet user that’s happy being captive within an app platform’s ecosystem will give the trophy to the app everyday. In the internet success is scored based on user attention, from this perspective the web brought a knife to a gun fight.

In the graphic below created by Flurry we see the magnitude of attention that Facebook gets of US time spent on apps. That means the Facebook app is used 2.4x the time spent on the browser.

Why does it matter that people are widely choosing to spend their time on apps vs. web? The dynamics of the app driven internet is important because it’s dangerous for innovation and competition. Imagine the small eCommerce store that has their own website on the web. They will try to get attention of customers through various marketing channels such as Social Media or Search Engine ads. Now as the app economy continues to gain attention I could see the app platforms adding more restrictions on any traffic that may bounce to another website for a sale. Maybe at that point the internet giant will choose to require everyone who seeks attention from their captive user base to host an eCommerce store through their platform, where a small fee is required for each transaction. I personally don’t think this future is far off (if it is not already here...).

The eCommerce example is only the tip of the iceberg. A monopoly (or oligopoly) on internet user attention could mean that one entity (probably Facebook) is the equivalent of the the web. In this case there would be no incentive for innovation other than trying to work within the rules set by the app platform. Rules that can be changed at anytime based on the business objectives of the platform owner.

How did we get to the point of an app dominated internet? It happened because all industry follows this pattern. It starts off as a Wild West of entrepreneurship and opportunity. The customers (users) come and everyone is getting a piece of the pie. Then organization comes in the form of some set of rules that are set by buying and traffic patterns. Then domination comes from those companies that provide a consist service that simplifies the head-spinning processes of the Wild West phase of the market evolution. The new dominant company can then reach the scale of the market it is serving. Now this gets interesting when you think of the internet market. The internet is world wide, so the extent of the market domination reaches global scale (without government intervention) in a way not seen by other market evolutions. Examples of this same market evolution can be found over and over. See US RailRoad Industry, Steel Industry, Mobile Phone Industry, etc….

Why do people choose to stay captive in these walled gardens? We stay for four primary reasons.

  1. They work. When you have many players in a market you get lots of amateur products and experiences. When you get error messages or sites that do not work it can get frustrating for the user who wants to save time and effort. The platform that works well for users is a great way to hold user attention.

  2. Network effect. All your friends (and others) are there. When a platform gets scale, success begins to bring more success. When this virtuous circle is growing the audience for this platform will exponentially increase in size. With this growth comes the desire for users to move to, or stay, on the platform.

  3. Habit. When a user uses a platform for a certain number of days the actions they take to seek and gain rewards becomes circular. User gets what they want and then keeps them coming back for more of the same.

  4. Mastery. The user masters the platform ins and outs. No more bouncing around different websites with different navigation patterns. The user can now effortlessly navigate through the app so the content becomes king. This user does not want to leave the platform because it causes the idea of perceived pain that would be derived from relearning an alternative platform.

While in 2010 my team and I had an idea that the app internet would come into a place of great strength within the internet, we had no idea how fast and nearly absolute the domination would be. It’s clear that Facebook is in the lead as far as internet user attention and strength in western markets. Facebook has the right answers as far as the four point formula listed above. The question is, how will Facebook manage their dominant position going forward? Will users increase their attention and continue voting for the app internet? Will we see Facebook (and similar) regulated as a monopoly by governments?

About me: I’m mostly focused on internet growth, culture, and startups and am the COO at Wafer Inc. When I can find time between being a co-founder and life I enjoy writing, mostly here and occasionally on Linkedin. If you enjoy my writing, subscribe or follow me on LinkedIn to see more in the future.


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