Will Mobile Apps Put You Out Of Work?

In August Chris Andersen and Michael Wolf wrote an article for Wired Magazine under the title, The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet. The article talks about how the internet is moving away from the wide open web as viewed through a browser and toward a semi-closed web viewed through apps.

This paradigm shift has many implications that impact web designers as well as SEOs and I want to talk about this shift and what it means for those of us working online by looking at some of the other articles that have followed the Wired article and adding my thoughts to the mix.

iPhone home screen with folders of apps

Apps Are Here to Stay. Long Live Apps

I’m guessing many of you own a smart phone and possibly another mobile device capable of connecting to the internet. I own both an iPhone and an iPad and I have to agree that more and more I use an app instead of a browser to interact with content online.

Chris begins his portion of the Wired article describing a typical day in which you check email on an ipad or smart phone and move on to using Twitter and Facebook apps. Maybe you take in the NY Times and read through a list of feeds in two more apps. At the end of the day you unwind by playing games against friends on the Xbox Live or watch a movie over Netflix.

You’ve spent the day on the Internet — but not on the Web. And you are not alone.

More and more we’re using the Internet to to transport information, but less and less we’re using the browser to display and interact with that information.

Even on your computer you might choose an app over the web. For example I hardly every visit Twitter the website. Since the beginning I’ve used one of available desktop clients. Same for Facebook. Most of the content I absorb online comes in though my rss reader. This post will mostly be written in a couple of programs residing on my desktop only passing through the WordPress admin briefly as a last check before publishing.

Search engines can’t crawl apps. html isn’t the dominant language across apps. Many of the things you and I do as part of our jobs aren’t as prevalent inside apps as they are on the web itself. Surely this will affect us.

Theme design for Apple's app store

Chris points out how this shift was inevitable, citing past industries with similar change and pointing out that while most of us might intellectually appreciate openness we inevitably choose the path of least resistance. Apps are simply easier and often better than their website counterparts.

In Michael’s part of the article he also argues this shift is inevitable, but for a different reason. Business can make more money through apps than through the web. Most of us won’t pay to read the news on a website, yet many of us will happily shell out a few bucks to have the paper delivered to us via an app.

None of this is to say the web is going away and the browser will die an ugly death. Apps won’t kill the web any more than the web killed tv, tv killed radio, or radio killed print. We’ll be using our browser (another app) to visit web pages for quiet some time.

While I use more and more apps, I still inevitably find most through a web page in my browser. And as great as apps might be, there’s a limit to how many we can download and realistically use before their number overwhelms us. The web through a browser isn’t going away any time soon.

Still this shift is taking place and will only accelerate as more or us carry and use internet capable mobile devices like smart phones and tablets.

seo is dead

SEO is Dead. Long Live SEO

Not long after the Wired article debuted, Barry Adams wrote about the potential death of seo for The Fire Horse Trail. Barry isn’t predicting seo’s demise so much as it’s change in the face of the move toward apps.

Again search engines can’t crawl apps and if that’s where content resides how will search engines crawl and index and rank content?

Websites still are and will be for some time the primary way we interact with content online. It’s not as though you’re going to wake up tomorrow in a world without them or a world without Google. 10 years from now we may not be using our browser as much as we do now, but we’ll likely still be using it.

As I mentioned above there are only so many apps you can realistic download and use. A browser can easily be the catchall app for all the apps we don’t inevitably download and use.

Graphic by TopRank showing cycle of social media and seo

Even with the shift it doesn’t mean seo goes away. True the ‘s’ and ‘e’ stand for search engine, but over the last few years seo has become a lot more than optimizing for search engines. Most SEOs are aware of how it fits in with marketing in general and I’d suggest many SEOs are more internet marketers who place a special focus on search engines.

Sure we’ll use apps, but how will we find them? Maybe we won’t be finding them all through a browser, but we’ll be searching for new apps somewhere. SEOs will likely adapt and help make apps more visible wherever we happen to search for them.

The specifics and technical details might change, but the basic skills will stay the same and will transfer.

SEO won’t die. It will evolve. It’s about helping your content be found through a search engine. Who’s to say that search engine has to be one we access in a browser. It could just as easily be one accessed through an app store.

Design is inspiration

Web Design is Dead. Long Live Web Design

More recently Cameron Chapman asked Does The Future Of The Internet Have Room For Web Designers?. Cameron’s article quickly spawned a couple of follow up articles disagreeing with here conclusions.

Cameron’s argument follows from the Wired article. As we move toward apps and away from the browser, web pages, and html web designers will become less relevant. She mentions the limit to using too many apps and suggests aggregator apps will arise and much web content will flow to us through those aggregator apps.

Cameron points to companies like Facebook and Google wanting the web to flow through them. You and I might have a Google and Facebook app and those two apps would determine what the content we see looks like.

While I think many of her points are valid, Cameron’s article misses on a number of points. One section of her article has a heading that starts “Content is king and design is becoming less relevant.” I’ll point you back to my post from last week, Why You Need Design to show why this makes no sense.

Someone is going to be making sure that content is legible and can be read and that person will be a designer. Can we finally get past the limited view of what design is? From the article

for most users, design is irrelevant.

Sure, if you ask them, but not if you track how they actually behave. Design matters, it always has and it always will. Once again the quote above is equating design and aesthetics as the same thing. They are not and I have to say I’m growing very tired of people who consider themselves to be designers not making the distinction.

What is graphic design?

While there will be a shift away from web pages and toward apps let’s understand that as far as design is concerned all that’s changing is the medium. What’s changing is the technology that delivers the design. All the same design fundamentals will still exist. Some web designers won’t take on the challenge of learning the new technology, many others will.

In the same way some print designers decided to stick with print design, some web designers will decide to stick with web design. There’s nothing wrong with either. Print still exists after the web and the web will still exist after the app.

Cameron’s suggestion that content will be aggregated similar to rss makes sense, but that doesn’t mean we won’t still visit the sites where that content originated. I can’t speak for you, but I still click through many of my rss feed to their html pages or other pages those feeds link to. Sometimes I just want to read the text. Sometimes I want more.

Sometimes I want to comment or join a forum discussion. Will those be aggregated too? Consider the difference in depth you already see when comparing a conversation viewed through a Twitter app to one seen on a forum website.

Wikipedia and Google logos

If Facebook or Google becomes the aggregator, who is it that will be creating all the content they aggregate. Will you and I create that content if there’s zero benefit to us? I won’t. Will Google be sharing the ad revenue from our content? Will Facebook? Why would either of us create content for them if they don’t?

Presumably those aggregators would still be linking back to our sites at the very least. Many blogs only publish partial posts as it stands now. Would they do any different in the future of apps?

I suppose the idea is that instead of building websites for ourselves we’re going to build spaces within these aggregators. I’ve already talked about why I think this is a bad idea and how these other sites should serve as outposts as compared to our home base websites.

Again let’s keep in mind the browser too is an app and a very good one at that. On my iPhone I don’t open Safari a lot to surf the web. The screen is too small and my fingers prefer not to type on a phone. An app is much more convenient.

Things are different on my iPad. The real estate makes surfing one of the things I do most and I’m not slowed at all when having to type. The browser doesn’t go away on mobile devices. It’s still a commonly used app for me anyway.

Another point in the article is how many mobile designs look unremarkably the same implying that design is no longer necessary. Mobile design is still a relatively new thing. Many mobile designs still look the same because we’re only just now focusing on it.

The first iPhone went on sale in June of 2007 and the app store debuted a year later. We’re only 2 years into this app revolution.

Remember what the state of web design was 2 years after the Mosaic browser debuted setting off the web revolution. It wasn’t pretty. Then along came designers consistently improving the web interface. People may never think they care about design, but care they do. Design isn’t going anywhere.

htm5 slide from Voices That Matter Web Design Conference 2010 in San Francisco, CA

Can html5 Save the Web?

Earlier I mentioned how the shift to apps is often one of the path of least resistance. If a native app is more convenient than a web app, we’re going to choose to use the native app.

html5 and associated technologies offer the promise of better web apps. The technologies haven’t been widely adopted yet, but they probably will before long. Is it possible the next wave of web apps could shift the balance back toward the web through a browser? I doubt that will happen to any large degree, but it’s always possible. If a web app is the more convenient option it will be the option chosen.

Most native apps still offer a limited amount of features as compared to their web app counterpart. Most people might never care about what’s missing, but some will. If you know a web app delivers more, there’s still a good chance you’ll choose the web app.

html5 will likely make web apps more feature rich so it is possible there will be some shift back to the web.

Overall though, I think we are going to continue moving toward native apps on a mobile device. The apps will get better and more of us will own Internet capable mobile devices.

In the end it matters not if all web pages go away and only apps remain. Those apps will still be designed and today’s web designer will transition to become tomorrow’s app designer. Apps won’t make design irrelevant. They’ll simply change the delivery of the design.

iPad home screen showing apps

Summary

There’s no question we’re seeing a shift in how we access and interact with content on the Internet. Apps are here to stay and will only grow more popular as more of us own smart phones and as tablets begin to fill the market. Our tvs will soon become more app friendly as will our cars and our refrigerators. At some point the web won’t be our primary way to connect online.

That doesn’t mean the web will go away. And it doesn’t mean SEOs and web designers will go away either. What it means is we’ll likely have to adapt the same way we always have. Maybe the next language you learn will be Cocoa as opposed to jQuery, but how much will that really be different from what you do now?

The basic principles of design, the basic ideas of marketing won’t change. Web designers will become app designers and SEOs will still be SEOs. Neither industry will die, but both will need to adapt and those who adapt quicker, those who begin preparing for the future sooner will find themselves in a great position in the coming years.

Spider web

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