Elon-Pew Internet survey looks at the expanding world of “Apps”

Elon's Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project study the impact of new mobile applications on the Web.

The Web Is Dead? No. It’s a Web/Apps/Cloud Future
Tech experts say a mobile/apps revolution is driving Web evolution, and ‘appification’ has its dangers

(Media reports: MSNBC, San Francisco Chronicle, Digital Journal, Media Post, Houston Chronicle, Daily Mail (UK), ReadWriteWeb, RedOrbit, China Post, CNET, ZDNet, ACM.org)

As the mobile Internet boom really took hold in 2010, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson proposed in a cover story headlined “The Web Is Dead” that the World Wide Web is “in decline” due to apps’ ascendance. Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee warned late in 2011 that “the Web as we know it is being threatened,” adding that “it could be broken into fragmented islands.”

In a new Pew Internet/Elon University survey of more than 1,000 Internet experts, researchers, observers and users, a majority expressed either hope or confidence that between now and 2020 most people will continue to work, play, communicate and create content primarily on the open Web rather than using narrowly focused apps as a gateway for most of their Internet activities.

These experts say new functionalities delivered by HTML5 and updates of popular browsers like Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer are bringing app-like dynamic interactivity and additional functionality to the Web. Some of them warn, however, that by 2020 the Web, while more attractive and convenient, will be more closed and excessively monetized, with negative results.

“Giant interests will push every button they can: fear, inexperience, passivity and willingness to be entertained. We’ll get a cleaned-up world that we can be perfectly billed for,” said Harvard professor Susan Crawford, founder of OneWebDay and former Obama White House technology policy staff leader.

While 59% agreed with the statement that the Web will remain the dominant space for 2020 users to access and share information online, a number of survey participants said the Web and apps will converge in an evolution that has both positive and negative implications for the future.

“They said the Web and apps are merging online in various forms as people come to depend on mobile devices and access to tools and stored data in ‘the cloud’ – on remote servers,” said Janna Anderson, associate professor of communications, director of Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center and a co-author of the study. “They expressed concerns about the powerful forces that are working to monetize as many aspects of the Web as possible and said developers are focused on moving away from open protocols and information to primarily emphasize a closed, secure system where people can take profits.

“They said apps’ tremendous ability to meet specific needs becomes a double-edged sword – apps simplify life but they also create ‘walled gardens’ and a lack of serendipity.”

According to these experts, HTML 5 is expected to continue to add a greater degree of functionality and relevancy to the Web. “Many experts predicted the cloud will dominate, the Web is the best place to develop and offer special applications and the ‘appification’ of the Web is already well under way,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, a co-author of the study.

“While experts expect richer, simpler and more-secure user experiences, some worry that appification, standardization and regulation could harm communication by 2020,” Rainie said.

This is the second report generated out of the results of a Web-based survey fielded in fall 2011. It gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. (Details can be found here: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/)

Following is a wide-ranging selection of respondents’ remarks:

“Instead of couch potatoes you’ll have app-potatoes.” – Giacomo Mazzone, head of institutional relations for the European Broadcasting Union

“Ease of use always wins.” – Fred Hapgood, technology author and consultant

“The browser—or its future equivalent—will continue to have key advantages over apps …Publishers have dreamed that apps would return to them the control of content, experience, business model and pricing that the Net took from them, but they are merely deluding themselves.” – Jeff Jarvis, professor, speaker, and author of “What Would Google Do?”

“The rise of cloud computing infrastructure means that apps will have comparable processing power and capability as traditional Web applications, and in many cases will be superior to our conception of today’s Web.” – Jeffrey Alexander, senior technology analyst at SRI International

“Once HTML5 browsers and fully capable Web runtimes are in place on the common Kindle through iPhone, the Web app will begin replacing native apps.” – Rob Scott, chief technology officer for Nokia

“The World Wide Web may evolve significantly, but the core design of open and scalable will make it the compelling solution.” – Robert Cannon, senior counsel for Internet law for the FCC

“The apps model as developed by Amazon, Apple, Google, and the like is another form of the walled garden made notorious by AOL…I have to admit the ‘open’ Web is certainly changing—just ask the 750 million people on the anti-Web, also known as Facebook.” – David Ellis, director of communication studies at York University

“The world is moving away from open protocols where anyone can play to proprietary, more easily monetizable services.” – Brian Trammell, researcher, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

“There will always be a Web, but it may end up like the imagery of a person standing on a soapbox, referred to more for its romantic symbolism than mattering in reality.” – Seth Finkelstein, programmer and consultant

“The Web is about discovery and serendipity, it’s about finding something you weren’t looking for; to lose that would be to take a step back in our progress as intellectual humans, the equivalent of burning a digital book.” – Richard Titus, venture capitalist

“Platform companies will push a great deal into their infrastructure and app developers will be able to push much higher into ultrastructure, providing a much richer user experience via post-browser-Web apps.” – Stowe Boyd, consultant and author

“Apps are a great intermediate play, a way to scale up functionality of a primitive Web, but over time, they get outcompeted for all but the most complex platforms, by simpler and more standardized alternatives.” – John Smart, futurist, founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation

“The gated bubble worlds formed by app markets, Facebook and other private spaces will bloom and fade, while people will keep gathering in the open spaces.” – Jerry Michalski, founder of Relationship Economy Expedition and consultant at the Institute for the Future

“The ‘World Wide Web’ will be a term no longer used. Perhaps we will use a simple term meaning connected or not. Connectivity = life.” – Amber Case, CEO of Geoloqi

Respondents were allowed to keep their remarks anonymous if they chose to do so. Following are predictive statements selected from the hundreds of anonymous comments from survey participants:

“The open Web will continue to be where the action is long after my iPad has become a coaster.”

“Users welcome trusted intermediaries provided they feel they are getting maximum choice and good value. Well-designed apps will emerge to accommodate user-generated content and make it much easier to find and use. Apps will also create a more efficient marketplace through which creators can harvest value for their innovations, far more easily than the repeated, failed efforts to monetize ‘Web content.’ Apps Store providers can ensure that apps are bandwidth-efficient, that they protect consumer privacy, that their provenance can be more readily known to potential users, etc.”

“The Web is the ocean. Apps are islands. Water and islands co-exist. Some people prefer to swim, sail and explore. Others prefer to sunbathe, settle, and, on occasion, island hop. Most people do a mixture of both. This will become more streamlined over time, but I don’t think of the apps/Web question as a battle with one winner.”

“People don’t understand how the Internet works now, and apps minimize the problems inherent with viruses, poor functionality, and malware. Apps will continue to proliferate, especially as mobile phones are increasingly used to access the Internet. It is not that the Web will be unimportant; it will just become part of the underlying technological framework that users acknowledge but do not understand.”

“We will see an ‘app-ification’ of the Web itself, something we’re already witnessing, as people’s use of the open Web goes far beyond information retrieval on ‘sites.’ Browsers, design and coding techniques have already made ‘Web apps’ a common thing. There will probably be less of a gap between the capabilities and behavior of ‘native apps’ and ‘Web apps’ in the not-too-distant future.”

“The future will depend on how powerful the oligopoly will be in creating a stratified system wherein the Web is deemed low-class and is therefore underfunded and slowed via corporate and regulatory connivance.”

“Authorities will, piece-by-piece, eliminate the free Web through regulation, licensing and firewalls that respect country borders. The Web will be more like cable TV via apps; everything will be either pay-as-you-go or advertising-supported.”

“The very notion of ‘apps’ vs. ‘Web’ misses the point of changes in infrastructure that are rather closer on the horizon. This does not even take into account two extraordinarily important things: 1) The majority of the world accesses network communications via a mobile phone (and though network access is patchy at best, apps in this case are far more efficient) and 2) apps and Web are becoming very much interconnected with cloud. It is the cloud that is poised to change how things are done for work, play, and communication and apps and Web will provide interfaces.”

“The Web will be increasingly seen by content providers as a more lucrative place to develop applications (rather than a specific piece of hardware or software). Developers will rather create one Web or cloud-based program that works on everything, rather than several different applications. As companies like Apple control their app stores with iron fists, we’ll see software developers exploiting new Web technology to reach the widest audience and prevent a middle-person from skimming a percentage of profits.”

“Apps are a passing fad generated by the Apple marketing machine and the artificial constraints imposed by its business model. There’s no reason the open Web will not come to provide the same benefits that people get from apps, while still holding on to its own strengths.”

“The Web will be so vital by 2020 people will take it for granted. The average citizen born after 1995 won’t be able to imagine a world without the Web any more than the average citizen born after 1950 could imagine a world without trucks.”

The findings reflect the reactions in an online, opt-in survey of a diverse set of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics who were asked to choose one of two provided scenarios and explain their choice. While 59 percent agreed with the statement that most people will trust and rely upon the open Web to access and share information over the Internet, a significant number of the survey participants said the true outcome will be a little bit of both scenarios, and some people said their choice of the Web as the winner was their “vote” for what they hope to be the 2020 outcome. The research result here is really probably closer to a 50-50 outcome.

59% agreed with the statement:

“In 2020, the World Wide Web is stronger than ever in users’ lives. The open Web continues to thrive and grow as a vibrant place where most people do most of their work, play, communication, and content creation. Apps accessed through iPads, Kindles, Nooks, smartphones, Droid devices, and their progeny—the online tools GigaOM referred to as “the anti-Internet”—will be useful as specialized options for a finite number of information and entertainment functions. There will be a widespread belief that, compared to apps, the Web is more important and useful and is the dominant factor in people’s lives.”

35% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:

“In 2020, most people will prefer to use specific applications (apps) accessible by Internet connection to accomplish most online work, play, communication, and content creation. The ease of use and perceived security and quality-assurance characteristics of apps will be seen as superior when compared with the open Web. Most industry innovation and activity will be devoted to apps development and updates, and use of apps will occupy the majority of technology users’ time. There will be a widespread belief that the World Wide Web is less important and useful than in the past and apps are the dominant factor in people’s lives.”

Note: The survey results are based on a non-random online sample of 1,021 Internet experts and other Internet users, recruited via email invitation, conference invitation, or link shared on Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook. Since the data are based on a non-random sample, a margin of error cannot be computed, and the results are not projectable to any population other than the people participating in this sample. The “predictive” scenarios used in this tension pair were created to elicit thoughtful responses to commonly found speculative futures thinking on this topic in 2011; this is not a formal forecast. Many respondents remarked that both scenarios will happen to a certain degree.

The Imagining the Internet Center (http://www.imaginingtheInternet.org) is an initiative of Elon University’s School of Communications. The center’s research holds a mirror to humanity’s use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record. Imagining the Internet is directed by Janna Quitney Anderson, an associate professor of communications.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (http://wwwpewInternet.org), directed by Lee Rainie, is a nonprofit, non-partisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It produces reports exploring the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care and civic and political life.