The Web vs. Apps, Librarians, and Information Freedom

Beyond choosing “app” or “web” mobile strategies for short-term tactical reasons, libraries have a critical stake in preserving the vitality of an open, standards-based, web. While developer-oriented platform debates between the application web and app-store frameworks can seem far removed from our stake in an open Internet, they deserve more attention from the library community and its allies.

I wrote the other day about the fairly narrow question of whether libraries should develop native apps for mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones, or rely on the web for delivery of their content and services. At least for most libraries, I came down on the side of the web. While acknowledging that needs might differ for some libraries with both very loyal (or very captive) users and a need for very tight integration with already-“appified” vended-content platforms, most libraries should devote their resources to websites while making those sites as mobile-friendly as possible. For most libraries—and certainly those I know best—it is hard to see an “app” strategy as an effective tactical use of resources.

Web Remains More Open

But my real concern goes deeper. There is a vital ongoing discussion about the ecosystem of the device-agnostic web versus the various app ecosystems. But libraries and librarians have mostly not been active enough as part of that debate. And libraries (and, for academic librarians, the scholarly institutions they serve) are parties with a real interest in a thriving, open, Web. As a profession far too often still mired in residual “print vs. online” debates, it is important that we don’t allow significant parts of the web ecosystem to decay just as we are, finally, coming to terms with our role in that ecosystem.

The danger of “apps” to web openness can be overstated. Native OS apps and browser-based front ends for complex applications are in many ways more alike than different. And as information services both rely on vibrant internet-based data and content. But the technologies of the web—both as it has historically existed and as it continues to evolve—remain relatively friendly environs for open information, open and “neutral” search and discovery, ongoing innovation and enhancement of existing resources and technology, and public-spirited sharing of public information.

Standards-driven, web-based applications remain more likely than native client apps from app store “walled gardens” to not only draw upon the vital wealth of knowledge and information of the Internet, but also to “re-plant” that ecosystem in fertile and productive ways. (This is especially true for services without a parallel full-featured browser-based option for either mobile or the PC.) Even while browser-supported facilities in the HTML5 spec allow for “plugin-free” interaction with DRM protection of video, but remain controversial, the open web is still a far less proprietary environment than the app stores. And one friendlier to downstream innovation and legal repurposing or fair uses of content. A web that goes some distance to accommodate DRM still avoids the greater perils to information freedom we’d see if applications or services based upon copyright-protected or otherwise proprietary information were to flee solely to far more “locked down” frameworks that may not remain web-based at all.

Web Applications Support the “Document Web” we Know

A slightly dated mental model of the Web has, perhaps, contributed to our alienation. Most of the library community has become quite comfortable with networked, electronic resources; with the document-driven web of hyperlinks; and with conventional websites. Apart from the occasional hand-wringing and grumbling we still hear about “googlization,” we’ve even become pretty comfortable with the technologies and behavior of web search engines (Perhaps far too comfortable when it comes to the facile fetishisation of the “single search box” in discovery-layer software).

We’ve even learned, in many cases down to very local practical workaday levels, to embrace the search-driven web “ecosystem” in our work, and even to retool some of what we do as the creation of metadata structures and networks that ultimately “feed” the Web.

But the ongoing post-Ajax, post-HTML5 transition of the web into an application platform seems to have caught us, as a profession, profoundly off guard. Did we only just come to terms with the Internet, as it existed circa-2000, to face instead this system not of documents but of applications? What does the web we care about professionally—the one that delivers relatively static, often (but not exclusively) text, information in a logical and discoverable manner—have to do with this new application-centric web? But he health of the Internet and web as a font of knowledge and information does have a great deal to do with the health of the web as a platform for software development, if only as a preventative to marginalization, neglect, and eventual trickle of information-based services to other platforms.

The more that is contributed to the web, and available via open and well-documented web standards and technologies—and the less that is scooped up from the web and sequestered into more controlled channels between apps and the cloud (in a sort of new enclosure movement)—the better off we all will be. But the connections between the fights for “free law” and “free information” generally, and the developer-centric debates over web development versus app development, can sometimes be hard to see.


As Jonathan Zittrain and others have highlighted, not all computer technology nor all communication networks have the open properties of the web (for twenty years, now, the premier Internet application) as it has so far existed. Zittrain’s 2008 book, The Future of the Internet: and How to Stop It, explicitly identified the then-new iPhone as an exemplar of the kind of “tethered” or “appliancized” platforms he saw as a threat to the open, innovation-producing (or, in his coinage, “generative”) technologies of the personal computer and the Internet.

As it turned out, while smartphones are in many respects less open as platforms than the PC (or the AppleII), the nuances of their danger was not only in their more controlled software development and distribution models but in the layer of interaction between a more managed software experience on the devices themselves and the encapsulated, “app-ified,” interaction with the Internet that this managed device experience makes possible. To the extent it has taken hold, that embrace (by developers, business, and end-users themselves) of this encapsulation of network interaction into apps rather than the browser is motivated by similar concerns (such as security and privacy fears, management of demand for high-bandwidth audio and video services, and the IP-related concerns of “big content”) to those Zittrain identified. But it also owes much to less foreseeable developments like the astonishing rise of comprehensively integrated social-networking platforms.

Sure Apple (and later the other app-store proprietors) has a lot more control over how applications are programmed for the iPhone and of how (and whether) those programs can be distributed to the consumer market than either Microsoft or Apple ever had over software development for the personal computer. But, it certainly seemed to me at the time, two really powerful factors cut against seeing the success of the iPhone as in any way threatening. First, if these kinds of platforms were too restrictive about software development, they’d do themselves in as platforms. Unless a true monopoly in favor of one mobile OS emerged, this particular harm was pretty hard for me to envision. And second, it was obvious that the real generativity going forward would be in the Internet and continued evolution of the web, right? Not in the long-matured PC? And I saw smartphones and similar appliances as really being all about providing Internet access. After all, the iPhone had a web browser built right in. It was even one that does a reasonably tolerable job at complying with web standards—indeed Apple’s banning Flash from the iPhone and campaign for HTML5 made it a sort of champion of web standards, right? (To this day I buck the trends apparent in market research, and spend the lion’s share of my phone or tablet time in the browser.)

Walled Gardens

In retrospect, I think I misunderstood the degree to which app markets would take off, the apparent appeal of apps over the “mobile” Internet for content proprietors, ecommerce, and for many users, and the other ways in which the Web and its users were changing. To the extent that there’s been a flight (by users, business, or developers) from the open “generative” web it seems to have been less motivated by escalating privacy or security weaknesses of open networks than by the rise of social networking—Facebook in particular—as an entirely different kind of walled garden into which much of the Internet’s content, and even more of its linkages and connections, are increasingly confined. Social networking platforms, and their role in terms of an open Internet (and especially an open Internet for knowledge and discovery, the classic purview of the librarian) are a topic for another post, except insofar as their prevalence has simply slurped up so much of users’ “digital media” time that their own app-forward strategies have become powerful drivers of additional app-versus-browser choices.

There is a long chain from particular business strategies (ours included) that might favor adoption of an “app first” approach to mobile networks and the scenarios that truly trouble those who fear for the future of the web in terms of open content and information freedom. But the fears deserve to be taken seriously.

Selected Posts and Articles

The following posts and articles are worth reading, and most also have very good and insightful dialog in their comments sections:

  • Joe Hewitt, “Web Technologies Need an Owner”.

    Software-developer Hewitt argues that a “leadership vacuum” impairs the web (defined as the HTML, CSS, and Javascript “triumvirate”) and that other platforms will continue to access data via HTTP but that the Web as we know it is under real threat, with the possibility that “freedom of information may be restricted to whatever our information overlords see fit to feature on their App Market Stores.”

  • Mark Palmer, “Code generators all the way down: Why the Web sucks for Apps”.

    Palmer attacks the HTML/CSS/Javascript Web as an app-development platform (in a series of posts linked from this one), thinks that apps will win on the desktop too, and sees the web as more suited to being a technology “limited to document viewing and sharing” without addressing whether such a niche technology would remain viable and vital for that purpose.

  • Frederick Tubiermont, “7 Reasons Why Appstores are Doomed,” Medium.

    Writing in Medium, Tubiermont foresees web apps’ eventual triumph over app stores. Among other points he claims, contra the other critics who favor app stores for discovery, that the Web offers the superior platform for locating, activating, and updating applications and services. He also makes the points that many apps rely on the Internet, anyway, and he sees a minimal and diminishing role for native app “wrappers” around HTML5 functionality. All points are well taken, though I think that the arguments about Internet-connectivity within apps and even the one about “wrappers” may understate the (problematic) perceived potential value for some applications—content-delivery apps for movies or even for rights-managed ebooks, for example—to avoid a Web front end.

  • Chris Dixon, “The Decline of the Mobile Web.”

    Dixon is another saddened, reluctant, prophet of app triumph and web-standards decline. He highlights a “rich-get-richer” dynamic for apps, and bemoans the control of app store proprietors (both for their “tax” on revenue and for their control over development). He even uses a “cable TV” metaphor similar to my own.

  • Matthew Butterick, The Bomb in the Garden.

    Butterick, well-known to law librarians as the author of Typography for Lawyers and as an online style and typography advocate, gave this thoughtful and provocative talk to the 2013 TYPO Conference in San Francisco. Butterick largely fingers the web’s lack of a viable economic model—apart from gradually weakening ad-supported structures and clumsy paywalls—to make quality information appropriately expensive, and bemoans that this may lead to second-class status behind app and media platforms like iOS, Android, and Kindle. He calls for better and more creative thought to go into how to make information expensive, and expresses frustration with the W3C (even calling for it to be disbanded) and more broadly with the standards-development process. The talk is less clear on *what* ideas might allow for these better web-based business models or allow the web to better compete with proprietary application platforms.

  • Lukas Mathis, “Web Apps.”

    A nice, highly practical, commentary on the merits of native app versus web app development that comes down to the conclusion that Apple’s and Google’s Android interests favor native apps but that user’s interests likely favor web apps. But that for developers it is about pragmatism not ideological platform wars.

  • John Gruber, “Web Apps versus Native Apps is Still a Thing,” Daring Fireball.

    Gruber blogs extensively about iOS and other mobile development issues. This is one of several posts related to web vs. native (and mobile vs. PC) considerations.

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