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Will apps really kill the web?

Will apps really kill the web? Tom Hespos

"Really? Again?"

That was my reaction to Wired's recent proclamation that the web was dead. You see, I was around the first time they declared the web dead, and I'm not one to place blind faith in premature announcements of the demise of entire media channels. This time, though, Wired hasn't placed its faith in obsolete push technology, but in applications, which are red-hot on the digital marketing scene. Hmm... maybe there's something to this.

Thinking about this, I reflected on my own consumption of digital media and the ways it is changing, and compared my changing habits with that of other cataclysmic shifts I've experienced during my career in media. Email, graphical web browsing, streaming media, social networking -- these all changed the game in their own way. Does the app ecosystem belong on that list?

To belong on that list, I think a media movement needs to not completely replace, but significantly erode the growth of media that came before it. Check. That awe-inspiring graph from Cisco in the above-linked article clearly demonstrates that.

Thinking about my own media consumption, I looked at my habits in both the workplace and the home. And they are both becoming more app-driven.

Every morning when I arrive in the office and wait for the coffee to brew, I boot up several applications on my MacĀ  -- two different email applications, TweetDeck, and a web browser. This is part of my morning routine. TweetDeck is most decidedly an app, and it replaced using Twitter through its web-based interface.

When I start up the web browser, I have a number of saved tabs -- the admin interfaces for two blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, the web interface for our time-tracking system, and a couple message boards I frequent. I also have an RSS reader plug-in that I frequently access through my browser.

As I look at this morning routine, I realize that just about everything I keep tabs on has a corresponding app that I access through other devices. That was a big "aha!" moment for me. Outside of work, I:

  • Access Facebook through two different apps on my iPad, and another on my Android phone

  • Create new blog posts and view stats through a WordPress app

  • Use LinkedIn through my iPod and iPad

  • Browse message boards and post through Tapatalk, an app that makes forums easier to digest on a mobile device

  • Get my feeds on my phone through an app and corresponding Android widget.

Wired might have prematurely declared the web dead, but if you look at the things I access every day through a web browser, there's an app for that. And I'm using those apps when I'm not in front of my desktop. So basically, a big chunk of my browser-based internet use is easily replaceable by apps.

This prompted me to think about why I use a web browser at all. A big piece of that is the more exploratory web navigating -- search, blog reading, websites that aren't on my list of usual stops. Apps tend to be used for things that I like to see regularly, and in a certain specific way.

Maybe apps won't kill the browser, but perhaps they will relegate its use to a role more reflective of its name. Browsers could end up being used just for browsing.

I'm still doubtful that apps will kill the web as we know it, but I've urged marketers and advertisers in the past to be thinking about ways to leverage the notion of sponsored utility in order to develop an app strategy. From a media-buying perspective, we might find ourselves unable to reach certain types of people on the web, and we'll need to rely on apps to help reach new consumers.

Tom Hespos is the chairman and president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com.

On Twitter? Follow Tom at @THespos1 or @_MarketingLLC. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Tom Hespos is President of New York agency Underscore Marketing. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade publications and has been writing a regular column about online marketing and advertising since March of 1998. His clients include Wyeth...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Tom Hespos

2010, September 02

Hi Andy:

Thanks for writing.

I'm with you on the graph - It's weird to show percentage of traffic in a chart like that, and somewhat misleading. I'm guessing a pie would have done a better job, but it wouldn't have come across as nearly alarmist enough. ;-)

I'm also with you on what constitutes an app experience. We see a lot of publishers rushing apps out to market that are little more than simply gateways to their mobile site or something that gives users merely another way to access content, providing little value in the way of utility. I think it remains to be seen, as people buy more app-centric devices, whether or not Joe Consumer will see through this and look for something more.

In terms of my own experience, content apps really aren't my thing. What I tend to look for are things that make my life easier from the standpoint of being able to do things I'd normally do on my notebook or desktop, without having to put up with the clunkiness of a web browser. Tapatalk is a great example of this. Sure, you can simply visit a forum via a mobile browser, but it ends up being an exercise in frustration, requiring a lot of pinching and side-scrolling to really read threads and participate in conversations. This saves a lot of time and provides real utility.

OTOH, gateway apps that just seem to make it easier to get to news content really don't do it for me unless they give me an option for displaying the content I'm interested in with some sort of customizable component that makes it easier to digest on a mobile device. A good example would be the Twitter app on my Android phone, which lets me not only update status, but also display the last few tweets from the folks I'm following in a customizable widget. You could always jump on Twitter via the web, but it's not as useful and much clunkier.

Totally agree that this is waaaaay bigger than Apple. I think they get too much credit. With Android outselling the iPhone, I really hope perceptions change concerning how people view the app ecosystem.

Thanks for your intelligent comments.

Commenter: Andy Maddocks

2010, September 02

re: WIred and "Really? Again?"

Tom... I thought the same thing (again).

There are a few other places across the "news and current events" domain where the spin doctors have made such declarations of death only to face the patient rising up from the autopsy table as the pathologist prepares for the first incision.

One interesting element of this recent proclamation was the misuse of a graphical display which showed ratios of usage of different Internet delivered technologies while failing to indicate that the WWW was still growing even if at a different acceleration and velocity.

I agree that "apps" are changing the end-user perception of how they use and experience Internetworked, focused, user interfaces like games, stores, books, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, physician's notes, movies, radio, course curricula, and the thousands of unnamed mundane and cute 'amusements' we load and show colleagues at lunch for a laugh.

Behaviorally, though (and as marketers we need to think more and more behaviorally right down to each addressable, individual consumer), we need to ask ourselves "what behavioral changes in a consumer would differentiate an 'app experience' from any other software experience?" I'm not going to draw out my positioning matrix and differentiators here (too much time to tweak my graphic), but it can be done.

Here's an example of the issue, I can point you to many WAP-style mobile experiences that really are not "apps" but the average (if there is one) Internetworked broadband consumer will often think they are; particularly if they can 'click' into them from the face of the iPhone or iTouch. It's more of a 'tuned browser' but it can 'feel' like an app. From a very layperson technical point-of-view apps are differentiated because they carry a portion of their functionality in static memory on the consumers' local machine; sometimes all of it... prompting the periodic deluge of updates if you're a big app user.

Also, let's look over the horizon a bit more to what our world of personal tech may look like in 5 years. I suspect "apps" as we know them will not be the same at all, and we may not have recognized their evolution into something very different as they disappear. The television business did recognize that TV as we know it was truly disappearing 5 to 10 years ago unless you were an interested investor, tech developer, or strategist like me; and you attended "digital Convergence" conferences as early as 1991-92. Yes, what is happening today was being discussed as early as the beginnings of the 'browser.' Those of us who led marketing strategy, advanced technology development, and even content creation were already talking about it then; and the classic comment was, "when do you think the costs of the component technologies will let us do it?"

Well, yesterday Steve Jobs highlighted that fact that the costs of component technologies to drive consumer experiences simply and intensively, but with deeper tech underpinnings is happening faster and faster. And, not just at Apple. We have to give the other big players in the tech and consumer tech food chain acknowledgement, too: Intel, Google, Microsoft, Sony, LG, Samsung, WPP, Publicis, Walmart, BestBuy, Electronic Arts and all the smaller component makers, software and app startups. This vast ecosystem of Internetworked experience and commerce is likely to do nothing but grow and evolve, short of utter global disaster.

So, don't panic. The Web is not dead. It is just giving birth to its next generations of children, and as you say, Tom, for now apps are one of the Web's progeny that will "help reach new consumers" or deepen and extend relationships with present consumers.

Thanks for your thoughtful note.

Andy Maddocks