A new-found app-etite for the web

July 27, 2011
A funny thing happened on the way to the Apple Store …
Apps were supposed to be the salvation for publishers when the iPad morphed from unicorn status to the real thing last April. Plenty of publishers — newspapers, magazines and books — have built apps. Apple’s newest rules on subscriptions are placating many more.

But there is already a bit of a backlash, and a new awareness that the world wide (open) web may compare favorably to the walled gardens available on the iPad and other tablets.

Why are publishers already starting to re-think the future of media again? For one thing, there is that kickback to Apple —30% off the top — for selling through the iTunes store. Then there are those rules that seem to favor the functionality of Apple apps, like in-app purchasing. And, most ironically, there is the “Aha!” moment that the iPad itself has provided by highlighting what the optimized, mobile web can really be like.

The Financial Times blazed the back-to-the-web movement, abandoning the iTunes store in lieu of an HTML5 site that is still behind their paywall. Apple primed the pump by forbidding in-app sales. Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble moved their stores from their iOS apps to the web.

And, what do you know? The public is better served: In a device-agnostic universe it’s better to buy on the web, which is everywhere, and consume as you like on whatever devices you have, can borrow, may become invented or are available. Even a clunky laptop.

The iPad and apps were supposed to be media’s best hope. But an entirely unintended consequence of Apple policies, and the reality of how content is best served up on flat, multi-touch screens, the smartphone/tablet revolution has paradoxically contributed mightily to the reinvigoration of web design.

The sharper focus of a smaller screen — against the digital tide of deeper, wider, taller, infinite — has imposed a new discipline. Rather than creating a need to compromise on style and substance, optimizing for smaller screens and potentially smaller bandwidth means that lazy, hazy “whatever” design is giving way to techniques which declutter the view and trim the excess weight of web pages.

Along with the physical constraints imposed by smaller screens is the appearance of the next generation of web language, HTML5, which offers developers rendering tools that were once the sole domain of proprietary software by companies like Adobe.

To be sure, this new school is heavily influenced by the design of apps — those small bits of software that run on mobile web devices which may or may not have a relationship with the web (as opposed to the Internet) and may or may not even require connectivity apart from brief periods when new content is pulled from the cloud and stored for offline use.

But the relative ubiquity of Internet access is also working against an app-dominant future. In addition to hotspot proliferation, there isn’t a mobile device that doesn’t have internet access on its own (built-in 3G or 4G) or can’t tap into another device that does.

So what does this all mean in media?

The iPad delivers the new web just fine — better than the old web, even.

The web isn’t dead; it’s just being optimized and focused. It’s becoming better designed by being undesigned, the way a sculptor adapts to the slab while remaining true to the medium.

This trickle of a revolt isn’t going to be the undoing of the Apple eco-system. Non-media revenue is and will always be the prime source for Apple. But it is curious that, a mere two years after all the pent-up expectations of what the Apple tablet would mean for the media, it may just be that apps — a new format for new media — won’t be the only big news going forward.

It could just be that, while nobody was really paying attention, the iPad and the tablet/app revolution it sparked has actually re-invented the web as a delivery system for a clean, new, organized approach to news, periodicals and books.

Less is more. The web may be infinite in all directions, but if the canvas is 9.5 by 7.31 inches (or thereabouts), well, imagine what the clever and the talented can do with that.

Follow +John C Abell on Google+.

Photo: Apple Store, Santa Monica, Calif., circa 2005. By John C Abell

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Reading on electronic devices is to thought as cotton candy is to fudge.

Tablets are the modern age equivalent to commercial laden television distributed over subscription only cable. Thin, shallow, popularized thought and information that is privately controlled, very expensive and propagandistic.

Computers are useful mainly to help people produce something other than subscription bills. Desktops are capable of that, with application and training and purpose, while tablets and smartphones are not.

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