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Ruben Verborgh

Use the Web instead

Native mobile apps lure us away from the Web under false pretenses, and we shouldn’t let them.

Few things annoy me more than a random website asking me: “do you want to use the app instead?” Of course I don’t want to—that’s why I use your website. There are people who like apps and those who don’t, but regardless of personal preferences, there’s a more important matter. The increasing cry of apps begging to invade—literally—our personal space undermines some of the freedoms for which we have long fought. The Web is the first platform in the history of mankind that allows us to share information and order services through a single program: a browser. Apps gladly circumvent this universal interface, replacing it with their own custom environment. Is it really the supposedly better user experience that pushes us towards native apps, or are there other forces at work?

25 years ago, the Web started changing us all. We read, listen, and watch differently. We communicate at a scale and speed we’ve never done before. We learn things we couldn’t have years ago, and talk to people we never would have known. The Web shapes the world in new and exciting ways and affects the lives of people every day. Hence, people stand up to protect the Internet that carries the Web around the world. Organizations like Mozilla strive for recognition of the Internet as a basic utility rather than a luxury, and luckily, they are succeeding.

However, the freedoms the Web brings us are being threatened from different angles. One direction that particularly worries me is the aggressive rise of native apps that try to pull the Web toward them. Just recently, Facebook’s director of product design compared websites to vinyl: slowly diminishing, but not quite going away. Facebook and others indeed want us to use their app instead—but not simply to provide us with a “better experience”. Their push toward apps endangers an invaluable ecosystem. We need to ensure the Web never goes away, and not just for nostalgia’s sake.

The Internet, our global network, is a basic utility. The Web, our global information space, is by far the Internet’s most important application—so we must protect it as well.

Web: independent interface to billions of sources

To understand why the Web is so important, we need to imagine what the world looked like before the Web. Many different information systems existed, but none could really interface with the other. Every information source required its own application. As such, it’s no surprise that the majority of the earth’s population did not bother to access any information system at all.

The Web liberated information through a uniform interface. Finally, a single piece of software—a Web browser—was sufficient to interact with multiple sources. Moreover, the Web is open: anyone can create browsers and servers, and they are all compatible with each other thanks to open standards. Soon after its introduction, the Web’s information space turned into an application space where over 3 billion people could create content, place orders, and communicate—all through the browser.

Over the years, people started surfing the Web using a variety of devices unimaginable when the Web was created. Yet all of these devices can access the Web because of that uniform interface. You can build a website once and it is accessible from any browser on any device (if you use nothing special or at least practice progressive enhancement). Furthermore, it keeps on working indefinitely, as the first website ever exemplifies. Compatibility goes in both directions: my site still works in browsers that predate it.

The Web’s ability to provide information and services across devices and time is an unprecedented gift to humanity. Why would we ever want to go back in time to when each source required its own software?

App: device-specific interfaces to a single source

After the revolutionary move of the Web, native apps try to achieve the exact opposite: forcing people to use a specific interface for each source they want to interact with. Native apps run on specific devices and just know how to talk with a single source (ironically mostly through the Web, except it’s a Web API you don’t get to see). Thereby, they undo decades of progress in information technology. And instead of bringing us something better, they merely deliver an experience the Web already can without platform-specific techniques. Even worse, apps manage to excite people about their existence. But while we happily install more and more apps, we’re silently being deprived of our universal window to the world’s information and services.

They find our browsers too powerful

Why do publishers increasingly prefer apps? Because it gives them much more control over what we can and cannot do. The “trouble” with browsers, from a publisher’s perspective, is that they are owned by their users. This means we are free to pick a browser of our choice. It means we can select plugins to extend that browser, for example, for accessibility needs or to add new functionality. It means we can install ad blockers so we can selectively restrict parties from following our online activity. And most importantly, it means we can escape to other websites by simply clicking a link.

If, on the other hand, you use the app, they decide what you get to see. Your behavior is tracked relentlessly, ads are displayed mercilessly. And there’s far less legislation protecting you against that. The app provides the functionality the publisher wants, take it or leave it, and you cannot change or circumvent it. Whereas the Web gives you access to a page’s source, apps are distributed as closed binaries.

“Don’t you want the app instead?”

I conducted a small experiment to see exactly how much of the top websites bug their visitors to install the app. I wrote a tool to automatically assess whether a website displays an app-related banner. It simulates a mobile browser using PhantomJS, capturing app popups that might be inserted dynamically. The detection heuristics are based on a combination of tag detection and natural language clues. This is how many of the Alexa top sites per category propose you to switch to the app:

More than a third of the overall top-500 websites suggest you to use the app instead.

These numbers are based on a heuristic and likely an underestimation of the actual situation. In some categories, at least one third of the websites prefers you use the app. That’s one third of the top websites that tries to lock us in their private system. Unsurprisingly, the categories regional, sports, and news reach a high percentage, as they want to be in pole position to serve you the best ads. Interestingly, the adult category ranks very low: either few people would like to be seen with an X-rated app, or pornographic sites are keen on infecting users with malware through the browser.

Under false pretenses

Even though publishers euphemistically ask whether you would like it, they want you to use their app. By stripping us from the extra control browsers bring, they can better influence the things we see and the choices we make. The Web is for all of us, whereas the app is really only the publisher’s. They usually justify a native app in addition to their website by mumbling something about an “enhanced user experience” that is obviously “much faster”. It’s curious publishers rather invest in an entirely separate codebase, instead of taking the obvious step to fix their website by removing bloat. Their main goal, however, is keeping us in the app. Since iOS 9, clicking a link inside an app can open an in-app browser. Not only is this feature confusing (which app was I browsing from again?), it increases the app’s control over your Web activities. And a single touch brings you “back” to the app you never left. In that sense, apps consciously contribute further to the filter bubble.

One particular extreme is Facebook’s Instant Articles: a regular link takes you to an “optimized” version of a page right in the Facebook app. Facebook hails it as a way to “create fast, interactive articles on Facebook” and they are not even lying about that: you’re not browsing the actual Web anymore. Instant Articles are marketed as an “interactive and immersive” experience with increased “flexibility and control” (for publishers, of course) that gives rise to new monetization options, and makes us once again “measurable and trackable”.

Let’s be honest here: the Web already has interactive and immersive experiences. In fact, Instant Articles are realized through HTML5! The Web, in contrast, allows you to leave Facebook and control what you see and whether you are tracked. The name “Instance Articles” refers to the promise of improved speed, and while they’re indeed faster, even that feature is not really intended for us. Facebook explains users read 20% more articles, and are 70% less likely to abandon reading. These metrics mostly serve publishers—and Facebook, which can take a cut of the advertising profits.

Give us the Web (back)

Don’t be mistaken: apps pretend to exist for our convenience, but they are all about luring us into a closed environment so their publishers make more money by tracking us and selling ads we cannot escape. Developers earn more, because they now get to build for multiple platforms instead of just the Web (as if the Web API cost wasn’t high enough already). And app store owners also hear the cash register ring. I’m not being naive here: websites also make money, but at least in an open environment we control ourselves. For now, we usually still have the choice between the website and the app, but if that choice disappears, the unlimited access to information we rightly take for granted on the Web might evaporate with it.

Some voices within Facebook already predict the end of websites, and this would indeed be good for them: finally, they’d become the single access gate to the Internet. Some people already forgot there exists an Internet beyond Facebook! The logical reaction of some publishers is to lock content within their own app, so they don’t depend on (or have to channel profits through) Facebook. And this creates exactly what I’m afraid of: a fragmented world of apps in which a single browser is not sufficient anymore to consume all of the world’s sources. We become trapped in their apps:

Last thing I remember, I was running for the door.
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before.
“Relax,” said the night man, “we are programmed to receive.”
“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”

Eagles – Hotel California

This song suddenly reminds me of the Facebook director comparing websites to vinyl. The analogy could not be more right. The Web is a record store, websites are records, and the browser is a record player. It can play any song you like, and different players can play the same records. In contrast, an app is a music box. It might be as fast as an MP3 file, but it only plays a single song, and comes with an entire mechanism you wouldn’t even need if only the song was available as a record. And did I already mention a music box doesn’t let you choose what song it plays?

Websites are like vinyl: you only need one record player to hear them all. ©Julieta Álvarez Leal

This is why I prefer record players over music boxes—and browsers over apps. So to all publishers asking me to use their app: why don’t you use the Web instead?

Ruben Verborgh

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