The cover story of the last issue of Wired was called “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” The gist of the article — which to me was a bit overblown — is that you can get through your day consuming quality content on the Internet without ever using the Web with a browser. For instance, you can access your e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and NYTimes.com on your iPad, listen to podcasts on your phone or stream Pandora, and watch Netflix picks on your Xbox and Hulu on your smartphone. The article then goes on to dissect why the Web has gone belly up.
A little much, but there is some truth to it, and it raises an important question: Is it time for us to abandon marketing on the Web and put all of our energy into creating more and better apps?
First, some quick theorizing. The futurist side of the equation is that the openness and discovery of the Web is naturally giving way to closed ecosystems of content. The other, more lamentable side is that we’re going against the true spirit of the Internet by needlessly reproducing features available on the open Web to create more profitable closed systems.
Are users picking apps as a reaction to the confusing and unlimited choices of the Internet? Or is the idea of a closed ecosystem being driven by entrepreneurs and marketers looking to lock in customers?
Regardless, let’s look at how apps are created. Apple’s success with iOS apps and the App Store makes it seem like tons of people are making applications from scratch, but what you might not realize is that the vast majority of apps in the store are essentially app “wrappers” for Web functionality. Those apps that you use to check the weather, tweet and read the news are really just super-simplified front ends for Web application programming interfaces (API).
Basically, there’s an open standard for mobile Web applications called WebKit, which is present in the iPhone and other smartphones, as well as iTunes (the iTunes Store is basically a Web page in an app). Hundreds of major Web applications, services and communities have an open API, which lets you use some or all of the features in a different context. The more common ones you might have used are ones that connect to Twitter or Facebook, but there are APIs for virtually every Web activity.
In the right context, apps can be really useful. Many people are spending more time on their smartphones and less time on computers, so a focused user experience often makes more sense.
Figuring out what to do with your brand in an app context has become a familiar exercise in the marketing world. In fact, the constraints of app creation are not unlike those inherent in traditional marketing, where it’s more about boiling down the complexities of your brand into a single message than it is using multiple messages or ideas on the wild and wide-open world of the Web.
But apps present one big problem: awareness. There are over 100,000 apps in iTunes right now. You can create a great app, but it’s unlikely to attract an audience on its own. You’ll likely have to use paid media to make people aware of it and get them to download it. What if the app is moderately successful, but you think you can do better? Do you take down the first one, or just throw up another?
Apps could lead us back to the same situation we found ourselves in with microsites, where brands ended up with a fractured, disconnected and confusing collection of sites littering the Web. It becomes very expensive to drive traffic to a new microsite, and app development presents the same challenge.
Of course, there’s also the chance that the rush to market with apps is a fake trend. An awful lot of these apps and embedded features are just the Web in a different context. The Web hasn’t died; it’s just morphed into a new incarnation.
If it is real, maybe it isn’t something to be scared of. We can look at it as an opportunity. Whatever the developers and entrepreneurs are doing in the marketplace we can do, too, and maybe even better. Perhaps instead of worrying that we need to spend money on advertising to drive to application experiences, we should recognize that brands always have and always will need to generate awareness, and that sending people to an app they can carry around and use is a big step forward from throwing an advertising message out there and hoping for the best.
Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group.