Public Turns to Web Over Apps Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

By Chand Bellur

March 19, 2020 at 1:21 p.m. PDT

  • Wired magazine famously claimed that the World Wide Web is dead and apps would supplant web usage.
  • Apps take time to be approved and updates are more sporadic and intensive for developers and users.
  • Health authorities have turned to the Web to disseminate vital information to the public.

The World Wide Web isn’t Dead

Ten years ago, Wired magazine ran the provocative cover story claiming that the “Web is Dead”. But, in their squirrelly, clickbait way, they quickly followed that statement with “Long Live the Internet”. The gist of their argument was that people favored apps over web browsers, even though many apps operate over the Internet.

Cutting through the foggy confusion that communications and journalism “experts” create, it’s a simple fact that many apps are simply wrappers around web browsers. For example, when you browse titles on your Netflix app, you’re really using a stripped down web browser. All of the content is essentially loaded from a web site. You don’t have an address bar and you can’t leave Netflix. It’s a captive experience, but you’re still using the web.

Beyond browser-based apps, any app that’s doing anything on the Internet is using web services. These services are invoked using http, and are part and parcel of the World Wide Web.

Wired magazine didn’t really know what they were talking about, but they seemed to conflate the rise in app use with a decline in Web traffic. At first, consumers flocked to apps (many of which were simply captive web browsers) over the poor mobile Web browsing experience of 2010. Things have changed. According to Statista, 52% of all website visits now come from mobile browsers. Back in 2010, this was only 2.9%. Wired was wrong. They were blinded by app hype.

COVID-19 Crisis Has Health Authorities Favoring the World Wide Web

When the App Store and its competitors’ analogues opened for business about a decade ago, millions of developers rushed into mobile app development. A lot of content-based apps, that were more suitable for the Web, were deployed as native mobile apps. Apps were to be the future of computing. Everything had to be an app as rational thought gave way to hype.

Right now, we’re facing a true crisis — a global pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak has health authorities disseminating information over the World Wide Web, because it’s a simple and effective way to reach most people.

The alternative is to develop two apps, one for iOS and one for Android. Then, developers need to wait for App Store and Google Play approval. Every update may be delayed due to approval. Furthermore, some people still don’t have smartphones, particularly the elderly. If you want to reach a lot of people, the “dead” and “obsolete” World Wide Web is still the best method.

The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins all offer their information over the Web, without corresponding mobile apps. Johns Hopkins, in particular, offers one of the most useful websites. Their COVID-19 dashboard shows the state of the pandemic throughout the world, updated by the minute.

If anything, COVID-19 has shown the lack of flexibility with mobile apps. Apps should be just that — applications. Word processors, spreadsheets, email clients, web browsers, games and other applications are ideal candidates for app developers. Electronic publications, dynamic maps and other information sources, particularly urgent, frequently updated ones, are best served by the World Wide Web.

XML All Over Again

I’ve worked in technology for a long time. When a new technology emerges, there’s a tendency for it to be hyped beyond belief. Developers suddenly want to stick square pegs in a round hole, trying to repurpose trendy technology beyond its true intent.

When XML hit the scene in the late 1990’s, it was hyped beyond belief. Developers started writing convoluted apps using XML and XSLT. The apps were difficult to write and maintain and suffered from obvious performance issues.

When the dust settled, many developers finally accepted XML for what it was — self describing data. That, alone, is extremely powerful. Unfortunately, XML’s hype outpaced developer’s understanding of the technology.

Mobile apps enjoyed a similar trend. Developers rushed out apps that really offered nothing more than static content. I know one developer who had to update his whole app to add new, static content. It was a chore for him and his users, but he couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Apps were the place to be, and he had to be there.

Anyone who has been on the App Store knows it’s clogged with idiotic, useless apps. Half of the apps I see should be websites. They’re buried in the App Store and most people don’t even know they exist.

If health authorities use mobile apps to disseminate critical information, this would have greatly increased spread of COVID-19. As it stands, the WHO website is one of the best sources of COVID-19 information. Watching cable news, it’s clear that they’re greatly exaggerating the WHO’s assessment and recommendations. For those who wish to find accurate and useful information, turn off the FOX News, CNN and MSNBC and point your browser at the WHO’s website. It’s the most important resource in this time of confusion and fear.

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