The birth of Amazon’s Kindle Fire and the celebration of Steve Jobs’s life have reinforced consumer interest in wireless computing. The presumed success of the new line of inexpensive Amazon tablets, along with the actual success of Apple’s iPad and the enormous array of Apple, Android, and Microsoft smartphones, raises the question of what impact the rapid shift to mobile devices specifically designed as platforms for app-based content will have on the Internet and the World Wide Web.
It is important to understand the distinction between the Web and the Internet. The easiest way to categorize the two is to view the Internet as the delivery mechanism for just about everything you see or listen to on your networked computer — peer-to-peer, steaming video, music, gaming, email, and Web browsing. The Web is only part of that stream.
On September 22, 2011, Joe Hewitt, the creator of the Web browser Firefox, predicted the retreat of the Web back to “its origins” as simply a tool to scan for online documents, much like Wikipedia is a tool to look up facts. Hewitt’s view echoes sentiments expressed last summer in Wired Magazine. In its August 17, 2010 cover story, “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet,” the magazine outlined the changing nature of the Internet. Wired proposed that the Internet is no longer about a single open World Wide Web but a series of connected but isolated villages. The Internet is simply the means by which people access apps or download videos and music. Wired went on to say that people who now spend time on dedicated sites delivered at the push of an icon no longer have the time or patience to browse the Web.
The move away from PCs to smaller mobile devices helps drive this trend. The use of smartphones and tablet computers is growing at an astounding rate. According to Cisco, wireless devices will outstrip wired devices and account for a majority of Internet traffic by 2015. Smartphone traffic is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 144 percent, eclipsing the probable 33 percent growth rate for PC-based traffic.
But just as instant messaging and texting have not eliminated the need for smartphones to receive phone calls, direct access to walled online communities will not eliminate the need for Web browsing. People may shop through an app, but they are likely to cruise the rest of the Web to verify that they are getting a good deal. New applications make the Internet more powerful but they do not make the Web irrelevant.
The Kindle Fire emphasizes this point. One of its key features is an enhanced Web browser called Silk, which optimizes wireless Web browsing by using both predictive algorithms and cloud computing to speed the user experience. Last week’s release of the $35 Aakash tablet in India also lends support to this logic. While the Aakash runs Google’s Android operating system and comes loaded with a handful of apps, it does not have access to Android’s app marketplace, instead relying on the Web for its content.
Another indication of the continued relevance of the Web can be found in the growth of Web-based addresses or domain names. Currently there are over 215 million registered domain names and that number is growing by almost 2 million a month. Sixty-seven percent of these domains are multi-page websites. To get a sense of scale, in four days as many domain names are added to the Web as there are apps in Apple’s app store.
It is unquestionable that the Internet and the Web are no longer synonymous. The Web now has significant competition for people’s time on the Internet. But competition does not mean that the Web will become irrelevant. The fact that for almost two decades the Web was largely unchallenged as the primary driver of Internet adoption also does not mean that today’s competition isn’t good for the Internet and ultimately that it may not be good for the Web.
Hewitt speculates that without a “good owner” to drive its future development, the Web can never compete with proprietary platforms. Hewitt points out that making cool new apps based on proprietary platforms will always be easier than improving the look, feel, and capabilities of the decentralized Web. People like cool and will leave the boring Web for more interesting content. Once the Web withers, Hewitt writes, “Freedom of information may be restricted to whatever our information overlords see fit to feature on their App Market Stores.”
In the end it is freedom, or more precisely the freedom to browse hundreds of millions of websites, that will help ensure the survival of the Web. Internet users value the ability to explore beyond the confines of an app store. While centralization can help speed development, decentralization also has its advantages. There are roughly 400 websites for every iTunes app. As long as Internet users crave access to a seemingly infinite supply of information, the Web will continue to grow.
Richard Russell is the director of the American Futures Project. He is a leading expert on domestic and international technology policy and has spent a combined two decades as a United States ambassador and senior presidential and congressional adviser on science, technology and telecommunications.