A recent article from the Atlantic hits on a theme that’s been developing throughout 2010, a potentially major shift in customer preferences, digital time, and spending habits that all publishers should note:
The era of the Web browser’s dominance is coming to a close. And the Internet’s founding ideology—that information wants to be free, and that attempts to constrain it are not only hopeless but immoral— suddenly seems naive and stale in the new age of apps, smart phones, and pricing plans.
I wrote about one of the implications of such a shift — the potential end of the “big Web site build” — back in March, and gave a presentation elaborating on this idea at a recent publishing conference (the response was muted because, I was told, everyone was “stunned” by what I’d said; I can only hope).
And while PC sales still vastly outstrip iPad sales by about 60:1, most PCs are replacements these days. The installed base is being upgraded, but not growing much. The segments that are growing? Laptops, netbooks — you know, mobile devices. Also, hardware sales are a poor proxy for time spent. Where and how people are using computers, and how they expect them to work — these are the things that are changing.
The Atlantic article sheds light on a number of consequences of the relatively rapid and ferocious shift to mobile devices driven more by apps than by the Web, including:
- A de-emphasis on search, to the point that search is hardly a function of most smartphones and barely integrated into many apps.
- A focus away from the Web and hyperlinking and more toward immersive experiences that call upon the Web only as a last resort.
- An end to the dominance of browser-based information assumptions and design standards, as design moves uptown and goes upscale in apps within stylish new devices.
I also wrote earlier this week about another potential side-effect of this shift — namely, the potential end of the site licensing era for scientific publishers and academic librarians.
For Google, the stakes are especially high. With the vast majority of its revenues based on keyword searches via the browser, a shift to apps as filters and alerting as a substitute for search could be significant. Apple’s announced advertising services show that Jobs knows how to go for the jugular, even if he misses sometimes. The Android and other Google smartphones are hedges against this possibility, as well as natural responses to customer demand. In addition, Google is making its mobile search show app and Twitter results preferentially.
For Twitter, the stakes are also high. If hyperlinks become less valued and in-app experiences become what people want to share, how will Twitter survive? They are probably already building something to respond to this trend, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with.
As publishers, we need to note that the largest animals in the digital world are shifting away from where we currently stand. There may be yet another expensive, difficult transition as customers move away from the browser and into apps on mobile devices.
We also need to remember that, as opposed to the print world in which we controlled the infrastructure, in the digital world we publish to the infrastructure our customers own. And they are shifting from the desktop/cable modem infrastructure to a mobile/wireless infrastructure.
The Web won’t disappear overnight, nor will the browser lose dominance overnight. But, as Mary Meeker showed recently in her updated Internet trends, change is happening. Social media is now beating email as far as adoption and time spent. Apps and mobile are rising fast. People are spending their time online differently These trends will recast the Web, taking center stage while the Web moves into a supporting role.
Despite these macro trends, some publishers still think short-term about their apps. That might be a mistake. If you’re worried about the expense and first-year payback on an app, and that nervousness is making you hesitate, consider the larger forces — your customers and people who are willing to satisfy their momentum into mobile — and you might see shifting investments as a prudent move.
Publishers in the midst of Web site redesign projects might also want to pause and rethink. By the time they’re completed, these projects may be about as relevant as a BBS would be today.
The path forward in the digital era is taking a hard turn. I’d recommend reading the Atlantic article, and then meeting with your best advisors to contemplate what the next 5-10 years will hold for you.
They’ll be here before you know it.