Why the web’s mourners are dead wrong

The latest obituarist for the website blames its demise on a nest of apps, but far from facing a poisoned fate its importance will increase, David Bowen says.

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It’s time to announce the end of websites, again. Forrester’s boss George Colony gave a speech at the LeWeb conference earlier this month [December 2011] in which he predicted the ‘death of the web’. In 2010 Wired magazine ran a piece by its editor headed ’The web is dead. Long live the internet’. There were others before, there will be others after.
They are wrong. All the arguments fall foul of that most basic fallacy – the assumption that one technology will replace another. Just as cameras did not kill painting, and television did not kill the cinema, apps and their friends will not kill websites. And for the same reason: they are not trying to do the same job.
I would go further, and say that these new ways of delivering content will actually increase the importance of the website – especially the one core to an organisation. For companies, that means the corporate site.

Approaching doom

Mr Colony’s thinking is based on two arguments, one technical the other commercial. While the power of the ‘network’ will continue to grow, he says, it will not be at the same rate as processing power or storage. So it makes little sense to concentrate on putting everything on to the ‘the cloud’, and tapping into it from lightweight websites. The future must be in apps, which take advantage of the increasing power and storage of devices to provide a more sophisticated experience. The phrase he uses is the ‘app internet’.
This leads to his commercial argument. He quotes the head of a luxury online retailer, Gilt, as saying that her customers are migrating from web to apps, where the environment is “faster, simpler and more immersive – a better experience”. From this, Mr Colony concludes, “the web will eventually be replaced”, with the ‘app internet’, his favourite candidate for the job.
For retailers, he may well be right. I got a rather sad e-mail this week saying ‘Rediscover Second Life’ and it occurred to me that it may be time for virtual reality to be given another chance in the non-gaming world. When I started writing about this stuff in the early 1990s, there was an assumption that virtual reality was the answer for shopkeepers wanting to recreate their stores digitally. Thanks to all this new processing power, maybe that will finally happen.
But what about organisations that are not retailers? That is, most of them. Here, Mr Colony’s belief that the web will be replaced is far-fetched.

‘appen not

Yes, of course there has been and will be more emphasis on non-web applications. The web grew mighty because it was so amazingly flexible. You could put everything (almost) into HTML and run it on a standard, free, browser – marvellous. We are now moving back to a more fractured approach, thanks to the growth of small-screen devices that don’t suit the web so well, but also to Skype, Xbox, Adobe Air etcetera. Inevitably the web’s share of activity will fall – but not its absolute size.
There is an argument about whether HTML5 will allow the web to fight back against the newcomers. I don’t know the answer, but I am sure that the old-fashioned website will continue to flourish. It will no longer try to do things it is not good at; so much the better, there is plenty left.
At one point in summer 2010 bp.com was among the most-visited websites in the world, following the oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. As well as having a live video feed of oil gushing from the seabed, the oil giant’s site provided a mass of constantly updated information. If you were a Vietnamese-speaking fisherman in Louisiana, here was information in your own language about what to do, and a claim form to fill in. What would BP have done had it not had a website? Put out press releases, staffed up a call centre… it could not have offered anything like the same level of service.

A proven platform

Websites are unbeatable at holding large amounts of information, making it easy to navigate and providing simple interactivity. Apps score where you need functionality, but on complex content provision, they fail. Internal navigation is clunky and they are by definition in silos, because you can only use one at a time. That may change, but why not stick instead to the tried, trusted and rather brilliant mechanisms invented by Tim Berners-Lee?
What about social media? BP used it, but always to drive traffic to its websites. That is because it owns the website; it does not own its social media platforms. Nestlé discovered during its spat with Greenpeace in 2010 that it did not control its own Facebook page: it had to abandon that to its enemies. Some companies have Facebook pages they do not even know about – set up by goodness knows who. Twitter is easy to fake.
But as long as hackers are kept at bay, you can control what is on your own site. Keeps you happy, keeps your lawyers happy.

Applauded by audiences

Good for you, but is it good or your audience? According to a new survey by Epsilon Targeting, the two media given the highest ‘trustworthiness rating’ by North Americans are newspapers and company websites, at 21 per cent each. Facebook scores 8 per cent, other social media channels 6 per cent. I’d guess this is for the same reason – people can be pretty sure that what they read on your website has been written by you.
For both these reasons – its unique uses and audience trust – the website is likely to increase in absolute importance even as its share of ‘the market’ falls. With every new channel putting up more signposts to it, its place as guardian of the company line is reinforced. Corporate sites might even begin to be seen in the same light as the large corporations that own them – reliable and established in way that contrasts with the more transient and fragmented mobile web.

Appropriate to the day

The website is the obvious place to put information about your company and products. A complex product portfolio can be neatly stacked; careers, social responsibility, press, investor information can all be managed and delivered. Social media can add great value in all these areas; apps can in some. There are many areas where they run rings round the web. But that is the point: each channel or medium has its own strengths and weaknesses.
If the web is killed, it will be because something has emerged that does the same jobs better – and I can’t see that happening any time soon.

First published 14 December, 2011
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