Is the Web Going Away? Or is It Going All Over the Place?

When Wired hyperbolically declared that "The Web is Dead," it didn't challenge my worldview but rather surfaced what I knew subconsciously. The browser is not always (and increasingly less so) the best window to the Internet - especially on mobile gadgets. For years on my iPhone - and now on my Droid - I've foregone digging around in a tiny browser in favor of burrowing straight to what I want through an app - the New York Times, Facebook, The Weather Channel...

At this week's Web 2.0 conference in New York, John Gruber of blog Daring Fireball tried to illustrate app supremacy by showing the absurdity of an iPad screen with only the Safari Web browser icon.

Earlier in the day, a different obituary emerged, not surprisingly, at a panel called "What to Expect from Browsers." It came up in a discussion about HTML5, the emerging bundle of standards that allow the browser to essentially run applications from Web pages - as so-called "Web apps." Håkon Wium Lie of Opera Software predicted that HTML5 would reclaim mobiles. "Apps? I think that's going to be on the Web," he said.

Microsoft, meanwhile, presents a Third Way by sucking the Web into its upcoming Windows Phone 7 operating system. An example: Like with Android, Phone 7 shows Facebook updates in the address book's contact entries. But you can also comment on those updates right in the address book, without getting booted to a Facebook app. Likewise, you can represent contacts on the home screen with icons that show their latest photo posts in real time. "So you don't have to dive into the app," said Microsoft designer Paula Guntaur. "You can actually get that information at the very first level."

Reality will likely be a mishmash of these visions. iPhones, iPods and iPads won't drop the Safari browser. Nor will Microsoft's vision dominate, even according to Microsoft. Paula Guntaur explained that Phone 7 simply provides a peek into the Web and basic functions like send little messages to Facebook. Microsoft is also scrambling for developers to fill out an app store.

The dictions between Web and app are nuanced. Daring Fireball's Gruber claims that the Web, rather than separate from the iPhone's iOS, is part of it, since iOS apps use Web-based services. He showed a Venn diagram with the Web as a big circle
within the bigger circle of iOS.

Which circles swallow which is a matter of semantic noodling. But Gruber's main point - that Web, app, and OS blur together - describes the reality. "How could you say that Twitter, even though it's running in an app, how can you say it's not [also] a Web app?" he asked. "Just because it's not written in HTML [i.e. for the browser], I say that doesn't mean it's not a Web app."

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