How Windows 8 Changes Everything, Part II: The Triumph of Chris Anderson

You wake up and check your email on your bedside iPad — that’s one app. During breakfast you browse Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times — three more apps. On the way to the office, you listen to a podcast on your smartphone. Another app. At work, you scroll through RSS feeds in a reader and have Skype and IM conversations. More apps. At the end of the day, you come home, make dinner while listening to Pandora, play some games on Xbox Live, and watch a movie on Netflix’s streaming service. You’ve spent the day on the Internet — but not on the Web. And you are not alone.
-Chris Anderson, “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet”, Wired magazine, September 2010

One reason why, if push came to shove, I might still be willing to get a Windows RT device and accept being limited to Internet Explorer as my web browser despite its limitations may be the ability of apps to fill those holes.

IE has never had the broad-based add-on support of its competitors, but Windows 8 may suggest it doesn’t need to; many of the same add-ons I’ve added to Firefox over the years are available in some form as Windows 8 apps. Most obviously, I might be able to do without an RSS reader in IE and instead install an RSS reader app; indeed this would have the advantage of flashing new items from my RSS feeds on my Start screen. Couple this with Twitter and e-mail apps, and I can keep up with everything in real time right from my Start screen. In fact several of my RSS feeds might provide their own apps with their own live tiles, to the point that the very concept of an RSS reader might be unnecessary; Microsoft may one day make it possible to pin RSS feeds directly to the Start screen as live tiles. The Start screen is so useful that even making it easier to get to it with one touch or swipe may not be enough to do it justice. The Start screen is the one element of Windows 8 that can’t be “snapped” to one side of the screen or the other, yet may be the most useful thing to be snapped (to the point that without it, live tiles seem more like a gimmick at best and a distraction at worst than actually useful); I’d like to have the option to keep my Start screen constantly on screen so I can see my live tiles at a glance and pull up a new app on the fly, not unlike a traditional Start menu.

Indeed, with Windows 8 coming with a separate Bing app for searching the Internet and many other sites creating their own apps to access their content, perhaps the Metro version of IE’s light-duty nature and discouragement of the proliferation of tabs is easily explicable. Perhaps IE itself is transitioning into a “miscellaneous” app, to be used only for visiting those sites that actually require it, rather than an all-purpose must-have for exploring any part of the Internet. Perhaps it’s the traditional web browser that’s entering the twilight of its relevance as our concept of what the Internet is gets turned completely upside down.

A few years ago, Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson published a controversial feature proclaiming, as the issue’s eye-catching cover put it, “The Web is dead. (Long live the Internet.)” The idea was that with the advent of devices such as the iPhone and iPad, people would increasingly shun the Web, as in the sites that require a browser to access, in favor of more specialized apps that met their needs better and could be more easily monetized, especially when it came to digital content for sale. The openness of the Internet favors innovation, and for decades that openness led to unprecedented innovation in all corners of the Web that doomed the “walled gardens” of old, but once that innovation started to settle down the Web’s tendency to be all things to all people would become a drawback and people would flock to dedicated apps that did just one thing and did it as well as anything could. All it needed was an Internet connection to access the data. APIs would be the new walled gardens, providing superior performance at delivering the data it provided, and people would be willing to pay the price, in money and control, for it.

Most observers pooh-poohed Anderson’s conclusions, for a wide variety of reasons – many of them having to do with the graph at the start of the article, which only showed web traffic declining as a percentage of overall Internet traffic, joined by peer-to-peer file sharing and video, the latter of which uses a lot more bandwidth than anything else and is usually accessed via the web anyway (to say nothing of the utter lack of any measurement of “apps”). Many critics also took issue with Anderson’s definition of “app”, noting that almost all the services in the opening paragraph above at least have accompanying web sites, and in fact their “apps” are really just clients for accessing their Web sites.

I think the latter group largely missed Anderson’s point. Sure, you can use your web browser to access Facebook and Twitter, but even then they seem to stand apart from the rest of the Web, as almost their own entities, to the point that when you access another page within Twitter, it acts as if it’s loading the other page within the Twitter interface, and then delivers it without the browser seeming like it’s done much of anything at all, as though Twitter is just sitting in the browser doing its own thing while the browser does nothing. Moreover, as time has passed Twitter and several other web sites have made their interfaces look increasingly like that of the iPhone’s – in order to match their apps. Facebook and Twitter are the most obvious examples of “web sites” that don’t really need to be web sites; they can exist just as well as their own specialized applications. And the same goes for all the other services Anderson lists in the paragraph above.

Before all this started, those web-watchers who saw something similar coming warned that it would close off the Web’s innovative nature, that entrenched interests would erect as many barriers to entry around the Web as traditional media had. Anderson, by contrast, predicted that this revolution would remain mainly limited to the monetization of digital content; his hyperbolic headline aside, e-commerce and things created for non-monetary reasons would continue to find a home on the Web. I get the sense both sides are making a faulty assumption – that in fact the new world of apps is just as open to anyone with the requisite knowledge of the coding languages involved as the Web is, making it actually a boon to independent producers of content, as evidenced by the nonprofit Wikipedia having its own apps. I mentioned in Part I how difficult it is to read Homestuck on the iPad or Surface, but there isn’t really anything stopping Andrew Hussie from making his own Homestuck app, which in fact might be a better way to experience it than relying on the Web site, especially given its “adventure game” motif. (This is especially the case on Windows 8, where it’s possible to make an app with rudimentary knowledge of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and other fairly common programming languages.)

That means it’s very possible the Web really is dead, or at least dying. Anything that can be a Web site can also be an app that delivers the same content in a more focused way. Even e-commerce can be carried out within the confines of an app, as evidenced by the existence of an Amazon app in Windows 8. As the Twitter interface indicates, the Web itself is starting to become bent to look more and more like an app, but for sites to offer their own isolated comprehensive experiences on a platform designed to accommodate individual pages without bias between different sites is somewhat contradictory, and not enough to resist the trend. The trend towards trying to wring as much as possible out of a single Web page, as opposed to the many separate pages linked by hypertext that is the Web’s defining feature, seems to be an inherent contradiction. Why hack a Web site to make it look like its own program when it can actually be its own program? HTML has long been a clunky language, and there have been many admirable efforts over the years to expand its capabilities to match what people have been using the Web for, including HTML5, and to expand the capabilities of the plugins like Java and Flash that help expand the capabilities of HTML, but we may be straining its limits, or reaching the point where the effort to keep expanding it doesn’t outweigh the desire to cut out the bloat and start over.

Internet Explorer 9 introduced the ability to pin web sites to the task bar, some of which could accommodate special functions specific to that web site, as though the site was a program in itself. Windows 8 may be the final nail in the coffin of the Web, because its live tiles both obviate the need for such fake apps, and provide the ultimate motivation for sites to transition to an app-based future, by providing something the Web can’t easily offer no matter how much it expands. Well before the iPhone and iPad came along, Firefox add-ons provided added functionality that were part of the browser but didn’t involve opening pages in the browser. It showed that no matter how flexible the Web page could be, it was still trapped within the confines of the Web browser, and there were still ways in which it could escape those confines and deliver you content by becoming part of its own prison, from within the browser’s interface, or even escape it entirely. Simply put, some sites are just bigger than the browser, and shouldn’t be restricted to within its confines. Windows 8 has provided online content providers the tools they need to fully escape the confines of the Web browser and explore their potential in ways the browser could never offer.

Indeed, Windows 8 may take Anderson’s future further than even he predicted, specifically the RSS reader he mentions checking, by replacing them with live tiles. I generally keep up with what’s going on in most web sites each day by checking two sites: Twitter, and Google Reader. Were I to get a Surface, I would have three tiles lined up all in a row for me to check: e-mail, Twitter, and an RSS reader. It quickly becomes apparent that the RSS reader is a “miscellaneous” app just like IE, one jumbling together all the sites that don’t have their own apps. If any site can be an app, any site with an RSS feed can become an app with a live tile. Most providers of news either now or will eventually have their own apps that will offer their content in new and better ways, and I’ll talk later about what all this means for webcomics. I predict that by 2015, there will be a new syndication mechanism aimed specifically towards blogs, one that doesn’t simply collect text and render it in the way the reader specifies but instead allows blogs to format them however they like, allowing them to more easily place ads and optimally organize content – a sort of “uber-app” to allow blogs to take advantage of the freedom and flexibility of apps. I’ve never really gotten the point of Tumblr, but perhaps it provides a hint at what the future of blogs might look like, a standardized mechanism streamlining many of their purposes and presenting them in unified fashion.

Google’s Chromebook, along with its predecessor ideas, subscribes to the ethos that the browser can be the OS. Microsoft has been inspired by Apple to flip that script around: the OS is the browser. Technically, the OS has been the browser since Windows 98, but only recently has Microsoft really subscribed to it as more than a way to raise the hackles of antitrust agencies – and my hunch is they’re closer to the future of computing than Google is. The rest of this series will explore the implications of all this, great and small.

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