How apps are chipping away at the open web

My latest “Dylan’s Desk” column for VentureBeat looks at a disturbing trend: The way app developers are giving up on three decades of openness and interconnection.

I am not yet sure that this is a truly widespread or irreversible trend. But I do feel skeptical about the rush to replace mobile websites with native mobile apps. This piece explains why.

For three decades, HTTP (which Paul Ford called “the Web’s operating system”) and HTML have proven to be resilient, flexible tools for interconnecting people and machines, facilitating communication in the most decentralized way imaginable. Anyone can publish a web page to a server on the Internet, and within seconds it is readable by anyone in the world who has the address and a browser capable of rendering HTML.

What’s more, anyone can link to any page on the Web without having to ask permission and without having to worry about what hardware or software delivers that page. All you need is a URL — another widely accepted, well-defined standard for interconnecting information.

Now, however, there’s a threat to this openness. It’s called the app store.

Technically, it’s not just the store: It’s the entire ecosystem of apps, content, hardware, and software. Apple perfected the model, and it has transformed the company into one of the most profitable corporations in the world. Even though its share price has plummeted in recent months, Apple is still in a very strong position thanks to the leverage that this ecosystem gives it. Indeed, that position is so strong that Apple continues to generate profits even though its market share among mobile devices is shrinking.

But here’s the problem: Apps are difficult to connect to one another. There’s no universally accepted way to link to a specific page or location within an app. (Many apps don’t even have pages.) To connect with an app, you need to use its application programming interface (API), assuming it has one, or the API of the device it’s running on. Naturally, that API differs from device to device. Making app-to-app connections is far more difficult than linking to a URL because you need to be a programmer to do it.

Read more: How apps are chipping away at the open web

I’d like to hear what you think.