How the rise of mobile apps will help Apple, Google and Facebook kill the Internet as we know it

By James Robinson , written on March 5, 2014

From The News Desk

Here is how the Internet - as we know it right now - dies. According to Nielsen, 89 percent of our time browsing the Internet on our mobile phones (and 81 percent of our time on tablets) takes place in apps. That means that the mobile web is withering on the vine, shifting towards irrelevance.

Also note that 2013 was the first year that Americans spent more time online on mobile devices than on computers, and as mobile devices become our primary point of interaction, the online experience will gradually become synonymous with being inside an app. It’s just like the Internet, but reimagined as a branded experience and with new, less democratic power structures, like Apple, Google and Facebook ruling the information roost like the Chevron, Exxon and BP of the world wide web.

This change has come within a dizzyingly short amount of time. In 2010, we spent an average of two hours and 22 minutes on the Internet on our computers and 24 minutes on mobile. By the end of last year we added almost two extra hours of Internet time on mobile devices and shaved three minutes from computers. While mobile online activities are surging, the desktop Internet experience, with its boundless open tabs and bouncing from point to point, has reached its peak. It's here to stay in some form for the foreseeable future -- bored office workers will always be at their desks somewhere -- but our time spent there will backslide.

The mobile web has fallen apart in a similarly short space of time. In the middle of 2010, what time we were on mobile was split 60-40 between the mobile web and apps. This became an even split by the end of 2010. Then apps pulled ahead in early in 2011 and haven't looked back. The unavoidable driver of this is user experience. It’s easier to be led and harder to browse on a smaller device.

So then, the humble app is poised to eat the Internet. It is the dominant access point for mobile devices. Forecasting outwards for future consumption the signs only point to this current shift accelerating. In a report from IDC, PC and laptop sales were expected to decline through 2015, with double digit dips in the PC market seen through 2013. Tablet sales are expected to have eclipsed laptop sales in the last quarter of 2013 and eventually outstrip all PC sales by the end of next year. Smartphone penetration is expected to hit 80 percent this year in the United States, up from 49 percent in 2011. Internationally, smartphone sales are expected to surge past one billion in 2014, with global penetration sitting just north of 60 percent.

This change is scary on one level, because the lens of the Internet is narrower on a mobile device. Mobile analytics company Flurry tracked 300,000 apps across a billion active mobile devices and found a somewhat unsettling picture of our mobile habits. Thirty-two percent of our time here is spent playing games and a quarter is spent on social networks, with three-quarters of that spent on Facebook. From a snobbish perspective, there’s little reassurance that mobile devices are making us better people. We spend two percent of this time on mobile reading news and two percent using productivity tools. Goodbye New York Times, hello Angry Birds.

On a macro level, the implications are far more daunting. This shift to apps and the splintering of our Internet experience across tablets, phones and computers, puts even more power into the hands of Apple, Google, and Facebook. From a marketing standpoint, selling the ads that so often fuel technical innovation, third party companies know we’re browsing the Internet on different gadgets, but have a fragmented, piecemeal idea of our user patterns, with a lot of this guessed at through statistical modeling. The concept of trying to retarget users between different apps is in its infancy.

All the while, Apple, Google and Facebook have a seamless picture of where we are, what we’re doing and who we know. Device pairing -- matching us by the services we log in to across all the platforms we use -- is the only foolproof way for a company to look at our true digital footprint. All three of these companies make it intuitive for us to always be logged in.

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.

Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor, spells it out in his book The Master Switch. All major innovations in information -- telephone, radio, film -- are born into an anything goes environment dominated by utopian thinkers, but Wu posits that power inevitably retrenches into the hands of a few players.

The shift to mobile apps narrows our view and our use of the limitless expanse of the Internet and it risks driving power into the hands of a few dominant companies. While inevitable, it's also disturbing.

[image via tobifirestone - FOTObs Fotografie on flickr]