Mobile Apps and the “Death” of the Web

Wired magazine’s latest issue ran with the rather flame-baity cover story “The Web is Dead”.
Their interpretation of data from Cisco, is that web pages are down to just 23% of the total volume of data being transferred over the internet and therefore the web is dying. While I have some serious doubts that you can make such a pronouncement when a 5 kilobit webpage can serve potentially infinite megs/gigs of HD video, I’ll let others debate the numbers. Their central argument is that single purpose Apps are replacing the browser and essentially killing the idea of the open internet.

“Mobile traffic tends to be driven by specialty software, mostly apps, designed for a single purpose. For the sake of the optimized experience on mobile devices, users forgo the general-purpose browser.”
Chris Anderson – The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet – Wired Magazine

This is the part the interests me. In the process of populating a user generated content site that I created, I have seen A LOT of websites recently. Beyond just seeing them, I was looking for some specific information on them; upcoming event, event date, address and contact email. It has been a bit of a shock how difficult it was to find basic information like that on most websites. Reflecting on what I have seen, it seems that the embrace of single purpose apps is less an abandonment of the open web and more an indictment of the difficulty of extracting up-to-date, usable information out of it. At least a single purpose app HAS a purpose.
The purpose of a website in my experience is threefold:

1.To be found. If Google can’t read it, people can’t find it, so its useless. Stop with text in images. Stop using Flash.
2. To show signs of life. There should be some indication of recent activity and an indication of how recent. This is the web, not the cobweb.
3. To provide basic info and facilitate key tasks. It should be obvious how/where I can do what I came to do. Selling tickets? You better have an obvious “Buy tickets” button somewhere. What’s your address? Where can people reach you?

A majority of websites fail at at least two of those 3 items and leave the user wondering why the site exists at all. Even when you hit all three at least one or two are more difficult than they should be. Maybe they tell you their address, but it might be with text as part of an image, so you can’t copy and paste it into Google Maps or an email. Maybe there is a “contact us” section that has a form you have to fill out, instead of just giving an email address which will stay forever in my contact list. Maybe the link to buy tickets takes four clicks to even get to. All of these things seriously frustrate users and make it clear that the site doesn’t have any clear purpose at all. In my mind this is exactly the sort of thing pushing people to abandon the browser for an app which does have a clear purpose. The user knows what to do and is happier with it, which the article seems to acknowledge:

“Every time you pick an iPhone app instead of a Web site, you are voting with your finger: A better experience is worth paying for, either in cash or in implicit acceptance of a non-Web standard.”
Chris Anderson – The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet – Wired Magazine

Computers are complicated. Even with more than a decade of mainstream computer use behind us, the average user knows as little as they ever did. In frustration they are reaching for the simplicity of apps that know their purpose. Your site is not an obligation, its a necessity. Design it with purpose. Don’t let your site be one of the ones that is driving people away from the internet.

Wired Magazine – The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet

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