One Internet, under no one -- but divisible after all.
If there's one thing 2011 will be remembered for, it'll be the year the Internet split in half.
In one corner, we have the traditional web, the one you've known and loved since the 90s. In the other corner, there's the “app” or mobile Internet. It's the one ushered in by the iPhone, and it grew to record levels last year with help from Android, iPads, and tablets.
And increasingly, there's different stuff on them.
“There's definitely a big rift between traditional Internet content accessed via a web browser and mobile applications on smartphones and tablets,” Engadget editor-in-chief Tim Stevens told FoxNews.com. “Five to 10 years ago people were getting excited about new websites. Now it's all about new apps.”
As a result, software developers and content producers are splitting their workload. Sometimes they release stuff on one or the other platform, but not always both. They publish on the Internet -- but not every version of the Internet.
Take the New Yorker’s popular iPad app, which features content not found on the magazine's website. The same goes for The Daily, and numerous other specialty publications, software apps, and video games not available on the free web.
But the web isn't just dividing in two, Stevens said. It's shattering.
“I wish it were just splitting,” he told FoxNews.com. “But the reality is the Internet is actually fragmenting into many small pieces. Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are the most popular mobile operating systems, but there's also Microsoft's Windows Phone, Blackberry, HP's webOS and even specific apps for Google’s Chrome browser.”
A clear example is Shazam, one of the first must-have smartphone apps for its ability to quickly identify unknown songs. Four years ago, it was only available on iPhone, though coveted by users on the traditional desktop Internet.
The app’s relevance has since faded. But platform exclusive apps are alive and well today. For example, Adobe Flash software, Google Navigation, and third-party app stores are exclusive to Android.
Such exclusivity, often for free to the consumer, introduces a level of have and have-not access to the Internet rarely seen before; in the 90s, websites like Quickbooks.com would only run on Windows, for example.
The dichotomy is sometimes even seen within families. Take teenagers Derick and Ryan Mansfield of Provo, Utah. Derick rarely uses a mouse and keyboard, instead reaching for his Android smartphone almost exclusively to get information.
Ryan largely does his computing on a laptop. He still uses his smartphone for texting—and once in a blue moon to place a call.
Not everyone that the Internet is "dividing," however.
“We're arguing about different front-ends here,” says popular TechCrunch columnist MG Siegler. “While apps and the web sometimes seem at odds with one another, it's important to remember that all are being powered by the same thing: the Internet.”
Indeed, mobile apps and traditional websites often access the same servers, databases, and file protocols. But even Siegler admits to diverging uses for the modern Internet.
When doing research and content creation, the traditional web environment is still ideal, most agree. Which explains why Ryan still reaches for the traditional web first when searching for cars to buy, multitasking, or writing.
Conversely, it also explains why people like Derick, more interested in consuming information on a casual basis, reach for their iPhone first.
Semantics aside, resources being allocated to the Internet — whether web, mobile, or otherwise — are undeniably being split to follow the money. “At this point, our iPhone app alone generates as many page views as the front page of Engadget.com,” Stevens said.
Translation: Apps will enjoy more and more features at the expense of websites overall. No, the web isn’t dead, despite a loud proclamation from Wired Magazine. It’s actually growing in places. Just not as quickly overall as the app and mobile Internet.
So what will the Internet look like in a decade? How might our children and grandchildren access it?
Siegler predicts that apps and mobile browsing will easily displace the desktop web browser. “In just five years, mobile devices are going to be the primary way most of us interact with the web throughout the day.”
That said, “the web will never become niche” he adds, since it still functions better than mobile in significant areas.
Stevens agrees. “The appification of the web will only continue. I would like to think the web will live on as an easy, lightweight means of getting information. But there definitely seems to be a downward trend, so it's easy to see the web losing favor over the next five to 10 years.”
Blake Snow is a writer, keyboard hugger, and avid iOS user from Utah. He can be reached at blakesnow.com