We now live in an apps world. “The web is dead” shouts Chris Anderson, Wired’s editor-in-chief. To make his point, he teamed up with Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair writer. According his latest theory, the internet is taken over by mobile applications, and the web as we know it, will be soon dead. Wired produces a Cisco-originated graph (below) showing the decrease in “web” traffic, down to a quarter of the traffic of the internet. The other 75%, says Anderson, include video, peer-to-peer, gaming, voice-over-IP telephony, a large part of it encapsulated in apps, blah-bla-blah.
Well. Two things. To begin with, Chris Anderson isn’t the first to notice the rise in applications used to access the internet. Every news outlet’s digital division witnesses a sharp increase in its apps-related traffic. Here in France, Le Monde just said its iPhone apps now contribute about 20% of its entire traffic; its iPad application (a bit crude but efficient reader) has been downloaded 150,000 times. This is just the beginning as publishers are working on new apps, for the iPhone, the iPad, but also for Android, Windows 7 for Mobile and even Bada, Samsung’s proprietary OS. Many publishers forecast a share of 30% of their traffic originating from mobile devices. This is consistent with Morgan Stanley’s predictions of smartphones shipments overtaking the PC two years from now (see below).
Such trends, when repackaged in Chris Anderson’s craft, ascend close to papal encyclical status (that Anderson’s particular skill; in a recent lecture, the British journalism professor George Brock calls him “a professional exaggerator”). Never mind the data he presents are not of the utmost rigor. As we can see here, he magnifies the demise of the web.
But byte-flow analysis is misleading. A more accurate measure would be time spent on the traditional web versus apps. For instance, neither Anderson nor the graph say in which category Facebook traffic falls. Is it an app? A web-based service? All we know is American users spends a quarter of their time on it. I wouldn’t dare wrecking such an attractive intellectual scaffolding with mere facts, but we can’t compare video and text-based pages on the basis of their byte-stream. I did the test: a 3 minutes of You Tube video weighs 16 megabytes; the same time spent on text will only require a 20 kilobytes page, 800 times lighter. (The 8000 words Anderson/Wolff story — devoured in 15 minutes at a normal reading speed, weighs only 117 kilobytes). When measuring things, the metric does alter the perspective…
Nevertheless, Anderson’s fatwa is gaining traction, as did, in its time, his Long Tail theory. Later, Anderson amended the postulate, using the concept of “strong head” (mandatory if you expect to make money with the tail). His “Free!” edict was also updated with the Freemium notion – a paid-for model tied to an incentive. But no more sarcasm, such silicon snake oil is a charming ingredient of our e-times.
Caution with Anderson’s theory aside, there is no doubt the app phenomenon will significantly impact the way we consume news: apps might become their main cognitive container. They won’t be as rich as a website, but they are likely to enable more focused usage. Consider the upside in the absence of links: On a web site, a link in a story means leaving it to go elsewhere. In an app, as the link uses an encapsulated browser instance, the reader doesn’t feel she’s leaving the story, the environment stays the same, the UI remains consistent. This results in a more immersive experience, like in a physical newspaper, or in a book where reading is not disrupted by context changes. Apps will be a good vector for complex writings (quantum mechanic vs. celebrity gossip) even though compulsive foragers will blame the impossibility to comment, share, propagate, squabble around contents.
Like in previous media transitions, the new genre of apps on smartphones or tablets, isn’t likely to completely supplant web pages. Each category simply corresponds to a different need: the web for news-picking to socialize with; apps for long stuff to actually read. This divide is less anecdotal than it seems. This summer, the impact of computing toward the way we think, analyze and learn became a hot topic. Must-reads on the subject include a series in the New York Times, Your brain on Computers, and Nicholas Carr’s excellent book, The Shallows. (If you don’t want to immerse yourself in it, you can read the seed version of Carr’s thoughts it his essay, Is Google Making Us Stupid? , published in the Atlantic). Yep. Slowly, scientific and teaching communities realize compulsive multitasking and overdoses of stimuli do more harm than good to our synapses. Expect the pendulum to swing back (a little) when the general theory of multitasking gets revised.
Let’s come back to the application genre. For the news business, applications are likely to evolve towards specialization. Assuming apps favor focus and reader engagement (in addition to carrying transactional capabilities), they will become the medium of choice when it comes to valuing contents for their specific or proprietary nature (as opposed to commoditized infotainment). For a digital news unit, launching an app with a specific coverage target, such as sports or politics events, will become part of the standard strategic editing arsenal.
This leads us to the following question: how to deploy mobile apps in a cost-effective way when the number of Operating Systems and platforms keeps growing? For example, within one year or two, any one-shot, news-related app dedicated to a major election or to Olympic Games will have to be present on at least three to four OS, two families of mobile devices (smartphones and tablets), and multiple flavors of screen sizes and resolutions. Not counting updates and bug fixes. Those of us who were reluctant to develop micro-sites on the web, are likely to give up developing apps for mobile.
A crucial battle for cell phone makers will be on developments tools dedicated to “light” applications. From a digital business unit standpoint, currents SDK (Software Development Kits) appear way too complicated to accommodate the urgency of the news business, of its short reaction-times. What is needed is a set of tools, based on templates embedded in CMS like those available for Flash sites. Apple and Android should think about it. (As an example, I found this gallery of Flash-based sites, made on a WYSIWYG browser editor without a single line of codes). In an ideal world, those MACMS (Mobile Applications Content Management Systems), would be complemented by a profusion of plug-ins and widgets such as those in the WordPress ecosystem.
As in the infographics, or Flash-based animations, building simple news-related application will have to progressively shift away form the IT department and into the hands of newsroom people (thanks to an emerging breed of tech-savvy journalists). In order to achieve that transition, an entirely new set of tools has to be invented. This is the required condition for the takeover of apps in the content business.