My iPhone 3G in its beanbag cellphone chair
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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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


14 Thoughts on "The Subordination of Browsers, Search, and Links: Will Apps and Mobile Redefine Our Digital Lives?"

Meeker’s slides are very useful and there is no doubt that mobile devices are taking off. But her slide #11 says that, despite over 4 billion app downloads for the iPhone to date, there are just an an average of 47 apps per phone. This suggests that a few important apps are replacing certain repetitive functions probably previously Web based, not replacing the use of the Web per se. I think we are seeing the rise of the new, not the knockoff of the old.

Yep, it’s not clear where this is headed, but when you combine some factors like time spent and device proliferation, it seems to be drifting toward a different world that’s using digital but not so reliant on the browser. How far will it go? Do I look up maps in a browser these days? Maybe 10% of the time. It used to be 100%.

Indeed, I have wondered for some time about the contradiction between sprawling web pages and the tiny screen of mobiles. It is almost like TV and radio. There needs to be a great sorting out of which content goes to which receiver.

More precisely we need a new kind of content for the smartphone (everyone sees that), but the web is not going away by any means. We are going to have both which means double the cost for publishers who want to serve both. I suspect people are going to have to choose.

Note that Meeker’s data suggests that the iPad is more like a small laptop than a big iPhone. I agree.

Ok I have read that article…

IMHO, at best it’s an exercise in ye olde media wish fulfilment, at worst it’s a set of declarative statements utterly unsupported by evidence, possibly generated in order to drive traffic to the Atlantic site – “Browsers Are Doomed! Read All About It!. Do go read the comment thread on that article. The comment by mattmchugh is succinct and to the point.

From O’Reilly Radar:

We have a diverse set of mobile OS’s which makes developing these all conquering Apps a big problem if you want to reach across all device platforms – not to mention the problems Apple put in your way with cross platform development. Most of them do not have an App store worthy of the name. As an aside – one should read the Apple SDK terms of use – if you are developing commercially, you might be somewhat alarmed by how they exert their rights and what they can do with your carefully created App…

Guess what does dominate across all mobile platforms… The Webkit based browser. So um – no the browser isn’t reaching the end of it’s days. It’s not even close. In fact with things like Mozilla’s Weave and Google upcoming Chrome App store for (webkit)browsers, I’d say that the days of the browser are starting to get really really interesting.

By the way, on the iPad/Touch/iPhone, you can turn any website into an “App” so that you can add it to your home screen. You can do similar things with the Chrome browser on your desktop.

Kent, I think your points about website design are valid, one has to explicitly take on board the need to design something that will work across the multiple access points – or perhaps that boils down to “design your site in wordpress” Or, perhaps maybe take a leaf out of the Guardian and enable others to reconfigure your website to meet their needs (supply api, sit back watch what happens, learn etc).

Apps are a new exciting environment, a space that is evolving as the devices evolve (the things you can do with the sensors on these devices take my breath away), but there’s simply no evidence to support the idea that they are in anyway a replacement for the browser. The plural of anecdote is not data, but for me, I’m spending LONGER on the sites I visit via my iPad, because the experience is so much better. A quick Q&A of my iPhone/touch using colleagues reveals that search is heavily used, if only because it’s easier to type “pizza” into the search box, than it is to type the whole url of the pizza delivery place.

Browsers and Search are just getting started I think.Links – well links ARE the web aren’t they.

I’m going to echo David Smith’s comment above–the article is interesting, presents some food for thought, but veers a bit too much into new media d-baggery, making overly extreme statements to draw attention to oneself, and to draw hits to an article. There are all sorts of people throwing around predictions like this because it’s a gamble that can’t be lost. If you turn out to be right, you get to claim the be the “father of idea X”, if you’re wrong, well, nobody really seems to follow up on the ridiculous claims constantly made by internet pundits anyway.

I’m hesitant to endorse any plan of action that is a zero-sum game, that suggests one particular avenue will dominate and all others will fade. Steve Jobs has said he sees two parallel tracks, the controlled, walled-garden of the app store, and the wide open web. It’s unclear to me why the success of one must rule out success of the other.

The app strategy is also a tough one for publishers at this point. As John Sack recently said, researchers don’t read journals, they read articles (I’d go one step further to note that they don’t read publishers either). Any app is likely going to be limited to your own properties, and thus of lower interest to your readers who cull information from a wide variety of sources. If I’m a biologist, will I need 50 or 100 individual apps for every single journal I might possibly read? Wouldn’t I be better served by one app that lets me search and access all journals, regardless of the publisher? Isn’t a web browser exactly that sort of app?

I have to say, from my own iPhone experience, I use Safari at least 10-100X more frequently than all other apps combined (with the exception of Mail). There are specific apps I do like when I’m seeking discreet pieces of information (WeatherBug, MLB At Bat, and as you note, Google Maps). But most other apps are maddening. The Amazon and eBay apps are dreadful in how they limit the amount of information one can see or search for, and how they require you to go through 5 or 6 screens to see what you can see on one webpage. Some of this is just bad design, but there’s a fundamental issue here about different approaches being better suited for different types of information.

As you say, projecting fabulous changes is all too common on blogs (including SK). But as Kent says, there are big changes underway. The hard part is to actually analyze them instead of simply projecting an unrealistic end state and chanting go-for-it.

Nobody wants to do their desk work on an iPhone, so the question is what is it good for and what kind of information does that imply? Reading scholarly works is not high on that list.

For adults the most likely iPhone use locations are in the car and in meetings. Most uses are going to be quick hits. Note that neither is replacing PC web use, rather there is a whole new time slot for computer use. So while attention is a zero sum game the sum just got a lot bigger.

By the way, the 5 to 6 screens is probably fundamental. Web pages often have 40 or more links to interior pages, so in just 2 steps you can get to over 1600 pages. But smartphone screens are so much smaller that the per screen link content is much less. Thus it takes more steps to access those 1600 pages. I started with Hypercard and the smartphone may take us back to that dear old format.

I’m beginning to think that “device proliferation” is the really important driver of all this. My DVR drove me away from looking up TV shows online; my iPhone and car GPS lured me away from browser-based maps. As David W. says, as things find their matching devices and use-cases, the Web won’t go away, but it will be reallocated into less browser-driven environments. It could be a big, slow change.

What then, is the DVR or GPS for reading scholarly papers? So far the top-choice format has been the pdf, but I think we’re all agreed that it’s getting long in the tooth. I am skeptical that publisher-centric apps are going to be the replacement though, and given the rather large investment they currently require, and the relatively low uptake, I’m not sure how quickly I’d jump into that pool.

This all, again, points to the ideal strategy being one of maximum flexibility, of building a workflow for content that is platform independent (or “media neutral” as Jim King from the ACS puts it). Right now this probably means getting your content into XML and flowing it from there into whatever app, html page, print journal or whatever comes along next. Worrying about apps or mobile may be thinking too short term or too small. Instead, thinking big picture, flexible content and a constantly shifting technology landscape may serve you better.

I guess what we’re all groping for here, at least from a product-development perspective, is the right level of future-proofing, which could be defined as a product infrastructure investment appropriate to the lifespan of the relevant technology. In other words, if a given platform will achieve meaningful market share and have staying power, we can invest.

But the definition of “platform” is pivotal. As discussed above, we seem to identify “PC-Based Browser” as a current dominant platform. Moving to Apps, we’d likely say Apple is dominant, with Android and RIM emergent. David notes that we’ll go broke dividing our (mostly) fixed specialty audiences between ever-proliferating numbers of platforms, each requiring a distinct development effort.

My experiences would suggest that our focus should be much more on enhancing the content data infrastructure. This is an infrastructure investment that substantially reduces the redeployment costs for any specific product instance. If I may modify Kent’s “Device Proliferation” to “Platform Proliferation,” then we encompass both generic (browser, app) and proprietary (iPad, Kindle) product iterations. Enhanced content data doesn’t make developing the variations free, but it makes them orders of magnitude cheaper.

Publishers’ assets are not OSs or hardware. They are content and information market intelligence (including widely various use-cases amongst their audiences). Ergo, make the investments first in these, and equip yourselves to move toward both platform- and device- agnosticism.

Forester Research just released a forecast (covered in TechCrunch) that is relevant to this post:

They predict that tablet PCs will outsell desktops by 2013. It may be a premature forecast as there is only 1 tablet of note in existence at the moment, but given the sales of that tablet to date, and the number of others in the pipeline, I do not suspect it will be far off.

What is perhaps of greater import, is that if you add up tablets, laptops, and netbooks, that is 80% of the predicted market in 2013. Meaning 80% of the computing devices – not even counting smartphones or Kindles- will be mobile. Once you throw in mobile phones, the vast majority of computing will be taking place on mobile devices.

Which does not necessarily weigh one way or the other in the apps vs browser debate (and I agree with Steve Jobs: it is not either/or but both). It is also worth noting that (screen) size does matter. While there are only just over 2 million iPads on the market, they have already overtaken RIM, Android, and iPod Touch when it comes to share of Web surfing:

Web pages look great on an iPad because of the larger screen. Reading science articles is also great on iPad as-is. The Web works well for tablets and laptops. In way of example, I downloaded PLoS’s new iPad app today and after a few minutes decided their Web site is better on a tablet than their app. Leaving aside the (not insignificant) issue of publisher-centric apps raised by David Crotty above, I just think the user interface for science articles is better – at least for now – on the Web. Sorry PLoS (your app is still on my iPhone though).

The iPad may be the perfect business mobile device precisely because the Web works on it. As I pointed out above, Meeker’s data suggests that the iPad is more like a small laptop than a big iPhone. It fits into a briefcase and doesn’t crowd your neighbor in meetings. Note that this means that iPad sales do not necessarily portent e-book sales.

By the way, a lot of people, including me, have switched their offices over to all laptops, even though they do not take them anywhere.

Two other quick points–
1) The app-based “walled garden” world seems in direct opposition (as noted in the Atlantic article) to the idea of the web as an open paradise where information wants to be “free”. Given the current movements for open access and open science, which get a lot of attention but apparently not a lot of buy-in, at least according to OUP, what would a shift to an app-based ecosystem mean for the decentralized, web 2.0 sorts of efforts currently underway? Doesn’t the app world bring about more curation, more centralized dispensing of information from trusted sources?

2) Is there a penalty for jumping into a new technology too early? Clearly there are financial disadvantages–I think of many recent presentations at publishing meetings where companies have invested heavily in putting their journals in apps and on things like the Kindle only to see very low levels of interest from their readers. But what about an uninspired app, one where you haven’t quite figured out the functionality that would make it worthwhile? Does this poison the well for future app development? Will readers ride along as you figure things out, or will their poor first impressions be difficult to overcome?

Interestingly, Meeker’s slide 6 suggests that beginning in 2010 smartphone sales were primarily instead of feature phone sales. This means people are not going out to buy a smartphone just to have one, but rather they were going to buy a phone anyway.

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