Everyone claims the jury is in — and the app marketplace has won. But the browser and those who support it are fighting back with a vengeance. I saw a bunch of fun and interesting stuff at last month's Velocity conference in New York City. One semi-veiled theme kept coming up: The app marketplace has a target on its back.
A War for the Soul of the Web
Many in the performance-minded web community gave nods to apps and indicated they were happy for the success mobile technology had been achieving. This salute was an intriguing hint to the actual battle that lies beneath the surface for the web performance and reliability community known as DevOps.
If you don't already know, the web technology community is engaged in a war of sorts with the app market place. As Tim Berners Lee, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, has said, the app marketplace is client-server all over again. Make no mistake, the web community doesn't like it.
On its face, app marketplaces represent what is abhorrent to them: successful closed systems that are threatening the sustainability of the worlds most beautiful open system, the World Wide Web. If Apple had its way, the web would be reduced to an API marketplace fronted by an ecosystem of apps — and Apple would be the dominant purveyor.
In a historical sense, the web represents a fundamental sea change in computing. It was created as a democratized ecosystem where all content creators were on a level playing field. App marketplaces on the other hand favor a few key players and require a high entry cost, which leaves both content consumers and creators in the backseat once again.
Fronts Within Fronts
Now that the shopping behavior has dramatically moved from the browser to the app, large web-centric brands are following the startups and shifting investments over to apps. So what is the hard-core believer to do? The keepers of the flame have seen this trend and are striking back on all fronts:
Performance — This was the prime message at the Velocity conference, where I heard front-end optimization talks from a horde of key industry players. They gave advice ranging from changing out your Linux version, using and applying a wide variety of free tools like webpagetest.org and understanding when and where performance patterns break down. The goal on the performance front is two-pronged: drive web performance to new heights and give unheard of levels of instrumentation within the delivery of web pages. That could make web-based experiences on par with native code experiences.
Capabilities — With sustained research from web heavyweight Google, advances in webRTC and other APIs are pushing the capabilities of browsers to match capabilities of apps.
The goal on the capabilities front: While apps rely on software written for the hardware device they run on, Google hopes the economics of write-once-run-everywhere combined with a new and ever expanding set of capabilities will turn the tide of the battle.
Wheels Within Wheels
The battle going on here is not as transparent as it might seem. When the app is the demarcation point, the vendor who owns the market place has the economic advantage. When the browser is the demarcation point, all content and software creators are equal. Or are they?
In the web world, is it true that no player has an advantage? This is really where the heart of the war lies. Google has the dominant position on the web and makes truckloads of cash by connecting consumers with creators. Apple has the dominant position in the app economy and makes truckloads of cash by connecting consumers with creators.
This is why Google works both sides of the fence. It offers Android for apps and Chrome for the web. It's why Apple dumped Google Maps for it's own (highly criticized) alternative. The war isn't so much about openness as it is about ownership. It's all about who owns the eyeballs of the audience.
Maybe the war is over. Maybe the app marketplaces have won as the numbers seem to indicate. I would not count the web out just yet, though. Google has an enormous revenue engine and is not the sort of company that is cool with second place (please remember to include tablets before you fire back at me).
Maybe this is why Apple has been so slow to introduce the long anticipated iWatch and why Google has jumped head first into wearable computing. In the near-future world of wearable computing and far-flung world of no user interface (UI), apps and their marketplaces may fall victim to the open technologies that started the whole thing in the first place: the World Wide Web and APIs. One thing cannot be denied ... at least it will be interesting to watch.