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Mobility

Why mobile apps are the biggest challenge to the web's freedom

Our desire for convenience may be killing the web. Here's how mobile trends could put the openness of the web at risk.

Image: iStockphoto/milindri

Given that we now spend 90% of our smartphone time in apps, it would be easy to think the mobile web is dead. It would also be wrong.

After all, a significant chunk of our "app" time is actually "browser" time, as new data from Scientia reveals. This, however, isn't necessarily cause for celebration.

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Tim Berners-Lee recently warned that "protecting the web's openness and heart is now the same as safeguarding free speech." But, despite the web's continued relevance in an increasingly mobile world, its "openness" has never been more at risk, given the proprietary nature of the apps we use to access it.

The web lives on...in apps

Most web traffic on iOS devices, 54%, comes from Apple's stock Safari browser. But a fast-growing percentage of traffic actually comes from non-stock browsers, which aren't "browsers" at all, at least in consumer parlance.

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Image: Scientia

As shown above, the vast majority of non-Safari web traffic on iOS devices comes from in-app browsing (94%), and a whopping 85% of that happens in Facebook.

The Android world is a bit more open, with 58% of web browsing happening outside the default stock browser. Of the non-stock web browsing, far less (67%) of web browsing is driven by apps but, as with iOS, what remains is almost completely Facebook (88%).

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Image: Scientia

The Guardian's Charles Arthur recently noted that apps are putting a crimp on Google's ability to monetize the mobile web. As he writes, "Mobile search is a real problem for Google: people don't do it nearly as much as...it would like. But there's no obvious way of changing that behaviour while users are so addicted to apps on their phones."

This open web brought to you by...

While this is true of Google, and it's equally true that Apple is winning big because its "well-stocked app store" is proving to be "the gatekeeper to mobile," another big winner can clearly be seen from the Scientia data: Facebook. The social media giant just announced spectacularly strong earnings, driven almost wholly by mobile ad revenue.

Early Facebook data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher once lamented that "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." Years later, those best minds have become highly adept at ensuring we spend most of our mobile web time within the comfortable confines of Facebook, happily clicking ads.

Speaking at AdExchanger's Industry Preview recently in New York, Patrick Harris, director of global agency development at Facebook, attempted to reframe the company's stance as more of a "privacy garden" instead of a walled garden, as TBR analyst Seth Ulinski captures.

Ulinksi is almost certainly right to call this a "smart approach...[that] creates more value for [Facebook's] expanding ad tech ecosystem," but it's not clear what it does for the web.

Speaking in 2014, Berners-Lee reminded us that "the web has openness and flexibility woven into its fabric." However, he goes on, "some popular and successful services (search, social networking, email) have achieved near-monopoly status. Although industry leaders often spur positive change, we must remain wary of concentrations of power as they can make the web brittle."

We now have one company that essentially owns our access to apps, another that owns web search, and another that owns our not-so-public forum for discussing everything else. This is not a healthy web. It's not an open web.

And yet, at present, all that we can really do is wring our hands and worry about the implications. Facebook isn't forcing us to read virtually all of our news within the walls of its tightly-controlled algorithms. Google isn't forcing us to search with it (though it's paying big dollars to ensure it remains our default). And, Apple isn't forcing us to use apps over a more open web experience.

Although, we are doing these things as we pursue convenience at all costs. And, so long as we do, the web remains brittle and at risk. Do we care?

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    About

    Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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