trapped_in_phone

The conflict between mobile apps and the mobile Web began anew earlier this week when Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon* wrote a blog post in which he argued that the proliferation of mobile apps will eventually harm innovation.

Dixon’s argument is based on the increasing time people are spending with their smartphones — and, more specifically, mobile apps — in comparison to the time they’re spending with PCs. Because these apps must be approved by companies like Apple and Google, Dixon argues, they threaten innovation that can only take place outside of those companies’ existing platforms.

This is the stereotypical “open” versus “closed” argument that manifests itself as discussions about Apple vs. Google, proprietary software vs. open-source software, and now mobile apps vs. the mobile Web. We have had some version of this discussion countless times before — but that hasn’t stopped many in the tech industry from breathing new life into this constant flame.

Pando weighs in

Pando’s James Robinson wrote about the threat mobile apps, especially those offered by Apple, Google, and Facebook, pose to the Internet long before Dixon’s post was published:

Think about Google Map’s omnipotent presence on all smartphones matched with the one-Google-log-in for everything model on desktop. Apple allows you to link all of your toys now with one log-in. And can you remember the last time you logged out of Facebook? This isn’t for your convenience, it is for theirs.

The shift to mobile has enabled these companies to develop powerful silos of information. In the case of Google and Facebook, this advantage can be used to mint money and increase the value of its ad offering. It has the potential to create a small oligarchy, protected by user data, with everyone else fighting for scraps in the market or working as resellers onto these platforms.

Which is why the Internet as we know it could die.

Reactions from around the Web

Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson wrote about the issue from an investment perspective:

We have a bunch of great investments in the 2012 fund, but we took safer bets and the result will likely be more wins and less strikeouts but also less home runs. Did we change our appetite for risk in our most recent early stage fund? It wasn’t conscious. We didn’t change our investment strategy. We didn’t tell each other that we wanted to take less risk. But it sure feels like we did.

My partner Brad hypothesized that it had something with the rise of native mobile apps as the dominant go to market strategy for large networks in the past four to five years. So Brian pulled out his iPhone and I pulled out my Android and we took at trip through the top 200 apps on our respective app stores. And there were mighty few venture backed businesses that were started in the past three years on those lists. It has gotten harder, not easier, to innovate on the Internet with the smartphone emerging as the platform of choice vs the desktop browser.

Ben Thompson, author of the popular Stratechery blog, wrote about the issue from WordPress.com’s perspective:

There is no question that apps are here to stay, and are a superior interaction model for some uses. But the web is like water: it fills in all the gaps between things like gaming and social with exactly what any one particular user wants. And while we all might have a use for Facebook – simply because everyone is there – we all have different things that interest us when it comes to reading.

That’s why very few of us devote all of our reading time to a single general interest newspaper these days, and that’s why we at WordPress.com have no intention of pushing anyone to any one particular platform or app. Instead our focus is on enabling and empowering individuals to create new content that is at home in the mobile browser, the WordPress.com app, Facebook or Twitter webviews, or any other channel that makes sense for the reader. Let the water flow to exactly where it’s needed!

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber dismissed the debate as irrelevant, writing that many of the things people are doing in mobile apps depend on the Web anyway:

The new mobile app-centric order hasn’t been a problem for Instagram, WhatsApp, Vine, Secret, or dozens of other new companies. In fact, I don’t think many of them would have even existed in a world still centered on HTML/CSS/JavaScript rendered in a browser. Instagram needed the camera, and thrived by providing scrolling performance unmatched by anything I’ve ever seen in a mobile web browser — even today, let alone when Instagram debuted in 2010. How could messaging apps like WhatsApp and Line even exist in a browser-only world?

The rise of mobile apps hasn’t taken anything away from the wide open world of web browsers and cross-platform HTML/CSS/JavaScript — other than supremacy. I think that bothers some, who saw the HTML/CSS/JavaScript browser-centric web’s decade-ago supremacy as the end point, the ultimate triumph of a truly open platform, rather than what it really was: just another milestone along the way of an industry that is always in flux, ever ebbing and flowing.

*Chris Dixon is a personal investor in Pando

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]