A Tweet About Mobile That Took On A Life Of Its Own

I didn’t realize the debate around consumers’ future use of the web versus native apps was so intense and nuanced…my column for this week…

I’ve been fascinated with mobile startups like Uber and Snapchat, among others – but not for the standard reasons. Yes, they’re both great products and ideas, but the one aspect I found most interesting  with Uber and Snapchat is its users never directly interact with the web. Even Instagram, Twitter, and other fast-growing mobile-focused products can be touched through the web browser. Over the weekend, I tweeted out a thought along these lines which turned out to be slightly inaccurate, and it somehow initiated an incredibly rich discussion and debate about what the proliferation of mobile devices and native applications may hold for the future of the web.

Here’s what I tweeted on Friday: “To me, the most amazing thing about Snapchat, Uber, and a few other apps is they all don’t need the web.” If you click on the link to the tweet and open the thread, what you’ll see are many replies and different conversations kicked-off from the original tweet. It’s quite awesome and worth scrolling through.

Now, a few days later, some reflections and observations:

First, I was not precise with my use of words in that tweet. Snapchat, Uber, and other apps do in fact “need” the Internet. What I had intended to tweet was that Uber and Snapchat users don’t need to interact with a website in any way whatsoever. With Uber, just download an app, register, upload a credit card, and you’re on your way. With Snapchat, pictures are not published to other networks or as static website pages (such as Instagram).

Second, based on the thread of replies and conversations from Twitter above, it’s worth pointing out again the difference between the Internet and the web – the Internet is a network infrastructure that connects many computers to each other, where information travels over the network through a variety of protocols, while the “web” is a way of accessing and sharing information over the network using the HTTP protocol. This was a good reminder for me to be more careful with these terms, as it’s too easy to use both words interchangeably from a consumer point-of-view given how popular they are in our vernacular.

Third, the subject of the tweet turned out be a contentious issue in some unrelated ways. Many participants seemed to welcome a world where they’d never have to interact with a web page again – to never have to type in the letters “HTTP” again. Of course, mobile apps where users don’t touch a website themselves still often rely on servers and APIs. Others, as expected, rushed to defend the open nature of the Internet (including the prospect of HTML5), a world where anyone can build on top of the network and not have the life squeezed out of them by gatekeepers such as Apple or Google.

Fourth, speaking of the mobile gatekeepers – how this all shakes out on iOS versus Android presents complex scenarios. For now, Apple has little incentive to move developers away from native apps, and consumers continue to prefer native apps. And, if the “cards“ concepttakes off from Passbook, that will create another mobile interaction unit which harnesses the Internet yet where a consumer never directly touches a website. The story may be different on Android – for one, Google may have an incentive to keep users interacting with the web on mobile, as their business model and data sets are tied to browser activity and the search paradigm, and two, Android can be and is being altered (or “forked”) by other device-makers, where HTML5 could present information in native-like ways or where apps are indexed and deep-linked to one another and users can navigate through a mobile web without friction. (All of this can change, as well, if another device or OEM hits the market and captures consumers’ heartstrings.)

So…one tweet turned into an incredible, two-day conversation and learning experience about the Internet, the web, and mobile apps. And while the distant future always remains an unknown, for now and the foreseeable future, I’d have to stand by the spirit of my original tweet – that is, when one steps back to think about the potential for a company like Uber or the sheer growth and scale of a communication tool like Snapchat, it remains a fact that those users are not directly touching a website. Yes, I know, they’re using mobile software that communicates with the Internet, but the larger  point is that the web – as an interface – may not be used by the next billion people who are set to come online.

Put another way, as mobile devices proliferate exponentially, many new users’ first online experience will likely not involve any direct interaction with a website. Yes, I know some apps will have wrappers and other users will search for information and end up in a mobile browser, but the growth of and appetite for services like Uber and products like Snapchatpoint to clear shift – a shift developers, UX designers, large corporations, PC manufacturers, venture capitalists, and even Wall Street recognizes:  mobile is the key touchpoint in the network. In a fierce competition for consumer attention, native experiences – not reincarnations of a website on a mobile device — is what most consumers prefer. For the majority of today’s consumers and for future generations , the world of websites will likely seem a distant planet, something they may learn about in school but one that may never matter in their day-to-day lives.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus