An Internet tipping point was reached in June 2011. It was the first time, according to Flurry Analytics, Americans spent more time engrossed with their downloadable targeted software applications than with the Web. Specifically, an average of 81 minutes a day was spent with apps compared to 73 minutes on the Web.
Subsequently, in December, apps were reported as even more popular — with an average 94 minutes a day spent with apps vs. 72 minutes on the Web, according to comScore, Alexa, and Flurry Analytics.
Last month, Apple announced 25 billion apps had been downloaded since it opened its App Store in 2008, while Google says users have been downloading apps at a rate of 1 billion a month.
If this "app-ification" trend continues, warn some experts surveyed by Pew Internet and Elon University, the Web will be more closed and excessively monetized by 2020, with negative results.
While 59% of the Pew survey's respondents agreed the Web will remain the dominant space for users to access and share information online in 2020, "35% said the Web and apps will merge in an evolution that has not only positives but many negative implications for the future," says Janna Anderson, the report's co-author and director of the Imagining The Internet Center at Elon University.
Anderson stresses the survey is not scientific. It is based on an opt-in sample of 1,021 Internet experts, researchers, and observers who were invited to participate.
"Some respondents expressed the thought that app-ification is dangerous," Anderson says, "that we have to be concerned over the movement toward commercializing, monetizing, packaging, and building gateways. That peoples' natural tendency is to just depend on one product — such as Facebook or Twitter or Google+ — as their gateway, which could lead to people losing serendipity, losing freedom, losing the open nature of the Web."
Anderson referred to the comments of one of the survey's many respondents, Susan Crawford, a Harvard professor and President Obama's former Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, who said, "I'm sad about this, really sad. Apps are like cable channels — closed, proprietary, and cleaned-up experiences . . . I don't want the world of the Web to end like this. But it will, because people's expectations have been shaped by companies that view them as consumers. Those giant interests will push every button they can — fear, inexperience, passivity, and willingness to be entertained. We'll get a cleaned-up world that can be perfectly billed for."
On the other hand, respondents like David Morris, managing director of research for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., does not see apps overtaking the Web but, instead, believes there will be a simultaneous growth of both. "It only appears apps are taking over because they are relatively new and still in the adoption phase," he said, "so their growth rate is more rapid than the already accepted World Wide Web. But neither will go away."
While he is restrained from offering his own opinion of the survey results because his "project is non-partisan," co-author Lee Rainie, who is director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, reports he was particularly impressed with the "interesting philosophical debate that focused on whether a more closed-off information space serves peoples' needs better than wide open spaces.
"It seems to me those respondents who are Internet architects aren't wild about a notion that more confined information spaces will be grabbing a bigger share of peoples' lives," he says. "Their strong preferences are to keep things open as much as possible."
Paul Hyman is a science and technology writer based in Great Neck, NY.