Are Web Apps the Future of Websites? (A: Yes)

A few years ago, I got to be on a panel at a conference with a few industry luminaries, discussing (what else) the future of the Internet. Among the topics was a discussion of the browser. In particular, we were discussing which browser was the best positioned for the future: Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Google’s just-released Chrome. While we were talking about share of market and support for different technologies, the point came up that Chrome is not really a browser. It is more of a liaison between the Internet and the operating system. Specifically, we talked about how Chrome handled applications that are Web-based, like Google Docs for example.

Chrome didn’t just run these apps within the browser window, using the functionality and the processing within the browser. Rather, it pushed certain tasks into the operating system itself, which unlocked a significant amount of speed. What’s more, you were able to drag shortcuts to applications onto your desktop which would launch the app when you double-clicked. What was previously a fairly strong, dark line between the computer, its software, and the Internet got all blurry with Chrome, both to the consumer and to the system itself.

Not a lot of people were using Chrome in that way. Or at least, not really thinking about Chrome in that way. But that’s about to change: Google released the Chrome Web Store recently, where you can browse, install, and (yes) purchase Web apps. The store is organized very much like iTunes or the Android Marketplace. You can browse through apps that are categorized by the type of thing they are, and installing just takes a second. Once you’ve installed an app, it appears as an icon when you open a new tab.

In a sense, these are just bookmarks. But what powerful bookmarks they are.

A New Way to Think

The Web app model is really a new way to think about how you package up content and functionality on the Web, if you are a developer or publisher. One of the very early fast movers in the Web store was The New York Times app, and it shows clearly how amazingly different an app can be from a site. Another remarkable app is for Gilt Groupe’s online store. Gilt is a good example – the site sells luxury goods and fashion (at insanely discounted prices) and therefore relies heavily on images. One more that I’m rapidly becoming obsessed with is, an app for drawing flowcharts and other diagrams. And of course, I’ve started using TweetDeck.

These three apps show how this new model can start to change how we see the Web, since they cover the four big areas of online usage: content, commerce, creation, and community. But they do so in the new, unified, and immersive way that we are seeing the Internet.

Consider your own Internet usage over the last five years or so. In the mid-2000s, many of us still had to “go online” – meaning if we wanted to use Internet services like e-mail or read content published in a blog, we needed to get to a computer connected to a network (or attached to a modem). We needed to block off a chunk of time. In fact, the very words that we used to describe this experience – “go online” – suggested that we were leaving our normal lives and spaces to travel somewhere else. Go further back and you find us talking about “being in cyberspace” – actually traveling to a different area of the world.

That doesn’t really happen anymore. Or, at least, it’s happening less and less. We now travel about our real world surrounded by a bubble of data and functionality that is always available to us. And, since we have ditched the spending-time model in favor of the doing-tasks model, we should expect that the organization of functionality and content should change as well.

This is why Web apps are bookmarks, yes, but powerful bookmarks. Web apps take the distinct content and functionality under a particular brand (NYT, Gilt, TweetDeck, etc.) and bundle it up into a single-click-and-I’m-deep-in mode. Services that live up to this model and expectation will win in the long run.

What Should You Do?

Build a Web app.

Really. The advice in this week’s column is that simple. Take the content and/or functionality that you have and build it into a Web app. The first step will be more or less a simple bookmark to your current site. But that will give you a foothold in this new shifting concept of what it means to put something online.

Past that, you can begin to explore what it means for someone to have consistent, one-button access to your service and how you can use the tools available to you in HTML5 to create an experience that feels less like it is a page-being-visited and more like an experience-being-had.

The services that shift over to the Web app model now are the ones that will get a prime spot in the user’s brain as well as their hard drive. The move to Web apps will only get faster. Don’t let this be one of those things that you need to catch up to.

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