The pace of technology innovation has been on a tear over the last two decades, as The Economist recently highlighted. Built on open protocols like TCP/IP and accessed through open-source browsers like Mozilla Firefox, the Web has given rise to Google, Facebook, Wikipedia and more. Freedom has been kind to innovation.
That freedom, however, is now under siege. Bluntly stated, the curated mobile experience is killing the Web, app by app, leaving us with a sheltered but increasingly sterile environment for experimentation.
We Prefer Apps To Innovation
We don't really have anyone to blame but ourselves. In large part, since the native app experience has been superior to mobile web browsing, users gravitate toward apps in a big way, as recent Flurry data makes clear:
This jibes with Nielsen data released earlier this year that shows users spend 89% of their time on media in apps, versus just 11% through the Web. While I personally spend as much time in my Chrome browser as I do in apps like Facebook or Twitter, I might be the exception to the mobile rule.
This shift to apps, innocuous as it may appear, will have far-reaching consequences. After all, while anyone could build anything on the Web, the rules for apps are much more tightly controlled, as Andreessen Horowitz investor and Web luminary Chris Dixon warns:
Apps are heavily controlled by the dominant app stores owners, Apple and Google. Google and Apple control what apps are allowed to exist, how apps are built, what apps get promoted, and charge a 30% tax on revenues. Most worrisome: they reject entire classes of apps without stated reasons or allowing for recourse (e.g. Apple has rejected all apps related to Bitcoin).
Users may like the safety of a well-tended app store, but it comes with serious risks to innovation. Union Squares Ventures general partner Fred Wilson confirms this: Upon reviewing the investments his firm has made over the last 10 years (including Twitter, Tumblr, Zynga, Etsy, Boxee and more), he worries the most recent investments, coming in the shadow of the app boom, suggest that "it has gotten harder, not easier, to innovate on the Internet with the smartphone emerging as the platform of choice vs the desktop browser."
(Don't) Think Different
We can't blame the almighty app for this trend entirely; after all, the Web has been under attack from centralization for some time now. Google, which keeps a tight rein on mobile innovation through its Android platform, has also spent years corralling the Wild West of the open Web into a systematized "stack" that includes Gmail, YouTube, Search and more. But Google isn't alone. Bruce Sterling, a noted futurist, describes the "stackification" of the web in this way:
Stacks. In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about "the Internet," "the PC business," "telephones," "Silicon Valley," or "the media," and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.
We look back on the early Internet and laugh at how CompuServe was ever a thing—that so many people happily used the curated AOL garden. Today, we're madly dashing back into these gated communities. But nowhere more so than on our smartphones.
HTML5 And Blockchain To The Rescue?
There are two reasons to remain optimistic about mobile. The first is HTML5, the development platform that, in theory, makes the mobile web look/feel/act more like native apps. While its promise has always underperformed against reality, HTML5 is good and getting better. It also continues to be the third-most interesting platform to developers:
As Google continues to learn how apps are a serious threat to its search business—difficult to impossible to access content within them—it will hopefully double down on HTML5.
But the brighter hope may be Blockchain.
Blockchain, the open source engine on which Bitcoin is built, is, as TechCrunch's Jon Evans explains, "a new kind of distributed consensus system that allows transactions, or other data, to be securely stored and verified without any centralized authority at all, because... they are validated by the entire network."
It sounds complex, but it means the server farms that centralize so much power in Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon could one day be replaced by massive distributed peer-to-peer networks. These would be open networks, just like the Internet used to be, and this level of openness would, in turn, breed innovation:
I'm glad that most disruptive and exciting new platform (no, not Oculus) - the blockchain - is open source and not for sale.— Adam Ludwin (@adamludwin) March 26, 2014
Building The Future On Blockchain
How Blockchain translates to mobile remains to be seen. But arguably we'll see a decentralization of control as inventors route around the gated communities of Apple and Google with Blockchain-based distribution strategies.
For the moment, Apple seems determined to keep Bitcoin out of its App Store, but that's a momentary setback, and not directly relevant. Blockchain isn't about trading virtual currency. No, it's much bigger than that. It's about an open, unfettered platform for innovation.