The Web May Be Dead, But Apps Will Be the Next to Go

Minority Report interfaces

OK, not really. Aside from the fact that I don’t really think the web is “dead,” I don’t think that “apps” are going anywhere anytime soon either. As Adam Greenfield once wrote: “this rarely kills That outright.” But Adam also recently declared “the app economy is a dead-end,” and I think he’s on to something there. As one garden is walled off, new vegetation grows outside it. What will that be?

Adam was an early adopter of the post-web app-ecosystem that Wired Magazine thinks is the future. He also wrote a bit about it in his write-up after the first Design Engaged in 2004 and was clearly already beginning to think about what was next: “The Web per se, with all its paraphernalia of sites and domains and banner ads and whatnot, was in many ways a crutch, an artifical simplification and a ten-year detour. The sense I came home from Amsterdam with was that we’ll all be getting used to a more kustom kar interface to the information we find most meaningful: flagrant, weird, complicated, idiosyncratic and personal.”

And what is next? It’s always anyone’s guess, but here’s what Adam describes it as a world in which every user is a developer:

I’ve been arguing (admittedly to no discernible impact) that as a first step toward this we need to tear down the services we offer and recompose them from a kit of common parts, an ecology of free-floating, modular functional components, operators and lightweight user-interface frameworks to bind them together. The next step would then be to offer the entire world access to this kit of parts, so anyone at all might grab a component and reuse it in a context of their own choosing, to develop just the functionality they or their social universe require, recognize and relate to. If done right, then you don’t even need an App Inventor, because the interaction environment itself is the “inventor”: you grab the objects you need, and build what you want from them.

I’ll try to rephrase that: an Internet built not out of static apps but out of many different discrete parts (we can call them widgets for the sake of argument here) that can be infinitely re-purposed and recombined, lego-style, by users to suit any purpose they need.

Adam went on to propose the “Momcomp” as an example of what could be done with such a platform.


This is an example of “visual programming,” a paradigm with many years of history that’s never quite taken off anywhere but in multimedia. MAX/MSP, for example, has been wildly successful in music and spawned many clones and imitators.

Theoretically, if I understand Adam’s idea correctly, Momcomp could be shared and users could easily modify it to process information about their own local public transit, or maybe use it as a template for app for buying movie tickets.

I like to imagine an operating system like Chromium OS in which I could do the equivalent of “viewing source” in a regular browser on every app part of an app or feature and play with the guts of it, zooming in fractally until I got down to actual code.

How close is this to reality? Well, Google App Inventor just brought us a bit closer to the day that non-programmers are able to easily build mobile apps. As of now, Android is the most popular smart phone OS in the US, having beat out both BlackBerry and Apple’s iOS. Android’s been criticized for not being 100% open-source, but it’s far from the “walled garden” that Anderson writes about in that Wired piece. Although we’re already seeing a world in which the web site, if not dead, is no longer the end-all-be-all of Net-presence, but it’s still fairly open Internet.

As for Adam’s vision, I think it’s already starting to be realized in the business world. JackBe looks an awful lot like Momcomp for suits: a platform for building shareable and modifiable apps that run in the browser, on the desktop or on mobile phones.

JackBe Wires

I’ve written before that the business world is driving point and click app creation. Although for the past few years consumer technology (the iPhone, social networking, microblogging, tagging, etc.) has driven technological innovation in business, today business technology is driving innovation in the visual programming and mashup world.

Meanwhile, Mashery is helping organizations put their data into structured, usable forms and Kapaw is scraping the web’s data and turning it into something, er, “mashable.” Maybe these things will never catch-on outside the workplace, where they’re used to build business intelligence apps and things of that nature. But the potential of personal cloud agents is a compelling one.

I don’t expect we’ll see the end of “the Web” or of “black box” apps, but with a little imagination it’s not hard to see what could be coming next, and it’s a lot more interesting than a bunch of walled gardens.

All of this is discussed in much more detail in The Web Is Dead? A Debate, an interesting conversation between Tim O’Reilly, Chris Anderson, and John Battelle – particularly O’Reilly’s contribution to the conversation.

See Also

Boing Boing: Is the web really dead? – Quickly debunks the graph showing web use in decline

Gigaom: The Web Isn’t Dead; It’s Just Continuing to Evolve – Some other important points about the supposed decline of the web – notably that many “apps” are basically just over-glorified shortcuts to web sites.

The Atlantic: What’s Wrong with X is Dead

The Tragic Death of Practically Everything – “Through it all, vinyl lives.”

1 Comment

  1. Klint Finley

    August 23, 2010 at 2:27 am

    Also of note, here’s Steve Jobs talking about “web objects” in 1996:

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