Rumors of the Web’s death may be exaggerated

Wired’s headline screams that the Web is dead. Similar headlines have screamed similar things about past media. Print, radio, television, they’ve all been declared dead at some point in their lives. Hell, print was dead back in 1984, if you can believe Harold Ramis.

Of course the Web’s not dead. It may not even be dying — it all depends on how you crunch the numbers and what unit you choose to measure with. The headline is meant to draw readers in, and it has done its job well.

So what does the article, written by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, actually say? It’s really a pair of articles that focus on the rise of the app-centric Internet. Anderson says that twas users killed the Web, for they chose “getting” over “browsing.”

An entire generation has grown up in front of a browser. The exploration of a new world has turned into business as usual. We get the Web. It’s part of our life. And we just want to use the services that make our life better. Our appetite for discovery slows as our familiarity with the status quo grows.

How do you “get” things online? You choose applications that just work, like the programs you download from the iTunes Store for your iPad or the doodads you run on your smartphone or the Netflix functionality built in to your X-box. Every time a user buys or uses an app instead of a Web browser, it’s a vote for a more closed and centrally organized system, Anderson says.

Rather that seeing this as the death of creativity, as Jonathan Zittrain more or less does, Anderson sees this as a natural stage in the evolution of markets, industries and media. We would do well, he says, to remember that the Web does not represent the pinnacle of Internet-use evolution.

The Internet is the real revolution, as important as electricity; what we do with it is still evolving. As it moved from your desktop to your pocket, the nature of the Net changed. The delirious chaos of the open Web was an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants groping their way in a new world. Now they’re doing what industrialists do best — finding choke points. And by the looks of it, we’re loving it.

Wolff’s article takes a different approach, saying that it was businesses looking for ways to turn an online profit that led the way toward the app-focused Internet. Companies that grow huge online eventually reach a critical mass, he writes. After that, they become too big to beat. They become an empire. The sun never sets on them. Google did it. Amazon did too, for a while.

But no empire lasts forever. So rather than beating them at their game, which they’ve already mastered, the challengers find ways to innovate and to play a new game on a different ballfield. The new game is so innovative and so different that people flock to it — think of Facebook here. Soon, the new game becomes simply a way of life and an empire of its own, all without directly competing with the old empires.

The biggest moneymaking game in town now is providing quality content to consumers. The content producers will make money by charging people for access to that content on an app platform — and people will pay for it because it’s easy, it works and it looks good. The content producers will also make money off of advertisers, who will be more willing to pay more money for ads that reach a stable audience, rather than the brigades of drifters that comprise normal Web traffic.

Since the dawn of the commercial Web, technology has eclipsed content. The new business model is to try to let the content — the product, as it were — eclipse the technology.

No matter how you look at it, app use is on the rise. And while it’s not necessarily killing the Web, we would do well to remember that there’s an open and generative Internet waiting behind all those pretty and well-designed apps, an Internet just waiting for another BIG THING to bring the next generation of media moguls to their knees and painfully shatter their precious networks.

This all reminds me of something Clay Shirky wrote last year. He focused on the death of newspapers, but the idea fits:

Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.