Wait! The Web Isn’t Dead After All. Google Made Sure of It
In 2010, the web died. Or so said the publication you’re reading right now.
In a WIRED cover story that summer, then-editor-in-chief Chris Anderson proclaimed the demise of the World Wide Web—that vast, interconnected, wonderfully egalitarian universe of internet pages and services we can visit through browser software running on computers of all kinds. We had, he said, departed the web for apps—those specialized, largely unconnected, wonderfully powerful tools we download onto particular types of phones and tablets. “As much as we love the open, unfettered Web,” he wrote, “we’re abandoning it for simpler, sleeker services that just work.”
At about the same time, Rahul Roy-Chowdhury took charge of the Google team that oversees Chrome, the company’s web browser. “I remember the ‘Web is Dead’ article very clearly,” he remembers. “I thought: ‘Oh My God. I’ve made a huge mistake.’” Needless to say, he didn’t really believe that. But there’s some truth in there somewhere. Though the web was hardly dead, it was certainly struggling in the face of apps. Six years later, however, Roy-Chowdhury believes the web is on the verge of a major resurgence, even as the world moves more and more of its Internet activities away from the desktop and onto phones.
As evidence, he points to the growing popularity of the mobile version of Chrome. This morning, as Google releases the latest incarnation of its browser, the company has revealed that a billion people now use Chrome on mobile devices each month—about the same number that use it on desktops and laptops.
But Roy-Chowdhury goes further still. After another six years of work, he says, Google and others have significantly improved the web’s underlying technologies to the point where services built for browsers can now match the performance of apps in some cases—and exceed it in others. “The web needed to adapt to mobile. And it was a rocky process. But it has happened,” he proclaims from a room inside the Google building that houses the Chrome and Android teams. “We’ve figured out.”
The Good Ol’ Web
Like Chris Anderson before him, Roy-Chowdhury is stretching reality a little, just to suit his own purposes. Though he proudly points out that just as many people are using Chrome on phones as on desktops, he declines to say how much they’re using it one versus the other. And certainly, apps are still superior in so many ways. According to comScore, here in the US, apps account for 90 percent of our time on mobile phones. Some people still say the web is dead. “I’m not a big believer,” says Kirt McMaster, the CEO of Cyanogen, a company that makes an alternative version of Android, Google’s mobile operating system. “There’s too much value in native apps. We’ve held on to the browser and that model way too long.”
But Roy-Chowdhury’s point is well taken. The web continues to play an important role in this world of ours, including—of course!—on mobile phones. Citing its own research as well as comScore data, Morgan Stanley says that mobile browser audiences are two times larger than app audiences across the top 50 mobile properties and have grown at a slightly faster rate over the past three years.
That doesn’t change the fact that people spend more time in apps. But as the market for apps continues to grow—as it becomes harder and harder for us to juggle apps on our phones, and as it becomes harder and harder for businesses to grab our attention with a new app—the good old egalitarian web can provide a viable alternative. For Roy-Chowdhury and others, the mobile web will prove particularly important as the Internet continues to spread through the developing world, in places like India and Indonesia. “Now people don’t have to install an app,” says Amar Nagaram, the vice president of mobile engineering at e-commerce site Flipkart, an Indian company that has found enormous success in building a version of its retail service for the web.
This isn’t a religious argument. Okay, maybe it is—at least a little. But this is about more than people holding onto the idea of the web just for the sake of holding on to the idea of the web. The hope is that the web can do on mobile devices what it has always done on desktops: provide a simpler way not only of building online services and delivering them across the Internet, but of using these services. At the very least, it’s not dead.
The Progressive Web App
The Weather Company offers a smartphone app, like any other sane company that harbors aspirations on the Internet. But it has seen more and more people visit its mobile website in recent years. According to Sheri Bachstein, the Weather Company’s vice president of web, about fifty percent of its web traffic now arrives on mobile phones and tablets (as opposed to the desktop). Yes, more people use the company’s various apps, but increasingly, the mobile web is a vital way of reaching its worldwide audience—not to mention maintaining and expanding that audience.
The company now offers what Google calls a “progressive web app.” Basically, this is a website that, in sometimes gradually evolving ways, behaves like a native app. You visit it through a browser, just like any other website. But as you continue to use it, turning on certain tools, it transforms into something more.
With a progressive web app, you can set up push notifications, so you know when new content arrives. You can add an icon to your phone’s home screen, so you can rapidly revisit the service. And perhaps most importantly, thanks to a technology called service workers, it can operate both online and off, kinda like a web app. Among other things, this means that when you visit the web app a second time, it loads faster. It’s more like the thing is sitting on your phone.
As Chrome product manager Alex Komoroske explains, this kind of web app can approach the speed of a native app—the all-important 60 frames per second—and thanks to service workers, it doesn’t break down when networks get flaky. But the larger point, he says, is that grows on you. As you visit and re-visit, turning on certain tools as you feel like turning them, it transforms into something more than a website. “You use it. You like it. And over time, you progressively build a relationship with it,” Komoroske says.
According to Google, this kind of arrangement is getting more and more popular. In November, the company said that each day, Chrome was handling 2.2 billion page loads with service workers and sending out 350 million push notifications a day. Now, just six months later, those numbers are up to 13.3 billion page loads and 9.3 billion push notifications.
The Weather Company is only partly down this road, using service workers and just recently turning on push notifications, but it’s already seeing the benefits. Bachstein says that the company’s mobile web audience is now almost as large as its app audience and that growth is accelerating. She adds, however, that part of this mobile web growth is happening outside the US.
Putting the World in WWW
Indeed, in India, Flipkart is seeing even bigger benefits. Based in Bangalore, the company already offers the world’s most popular app offered by an Indian company (apps like Facebook and WhatsApp are more popular overall). But its (progressive) web app serves a very different audience.
Many Indians are still on small phones and rather slow 2G networks, and a web app lets them tap into Flipkart much more quickly without spending the time needed to download a native app. “You only download what you use,” Nagaram says.
According to the company, 67 percent of the traffic to its web app is coming from 2G networks, and people are spending an average of three-and-a-half minutes on the app with each visit, as opposed to 70 seconds with its previous webpage. Customer “conversions”—where people visit Flipkart and then stick around for the long haul—are up 70 percent since the company rolled out the web app it calls Flipkart Lite.
There’s a certain irony to this. In years past, the knock against the mobile web was that it couldn’t do as much as a native app. But for FlipKart, the mobile web is beneficial because it does less—at least in certain situations. Flipkart Lite uses three times less data than the native app, and that’s what makes it easier to use on 2G networks. Meanwhile, it can mimic the power of a native app in other situations, thanks to service workers.
The Coming Convergence
For Nagaram—who previously worked in US at Walmart Labs, the Internet-focused R&D arm of the retail giant—the mobile web is the future, not only in India, but everywhere. “There’s a convergence of two worlds,” he says. “The native apps and the web are coming together.”
He acknowledges that the US doesn’t face the same phone and network limitations as India, but as an elite group of popular apps crowd others out, the mobile web can provide a more, well, egalitarian environment. “The end goal is to kill the App Store,” he says.
Alright, that’s seems like a distant possibility—or a very distant possibility. Even if you think that Chrome had solved the mobile web with things like service workers and push notifications, other browsers haven’t gone nearly as far. But Nagaram’s claim is no more ridiculous than the claim that the web is dead. The truth is that the app universe and the web are not mutually exclusive. We use the both. Just maybe, the web is more alive than ever.