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The death the Web continues to be greatly exaggerated

In 2010, Wired Magazine published one of its periodically famous mis-takes (older folks will remember the 1997 “Pray” cover predicting Apple’s imminent demise, and even older folks their prediction that push technologies would kill off the web–”kiss your browser goodbye“).

In 2010 it was not Apple that was dying, rather the web was already dead! The culprit? Native smartphone apps according to the legendary Wired editor Chris Anderson.

To tell the truth, this idea was widespread, and persisted for years–the Web would slowly recede, becoming a place for documents, while Apps, the future, would live on iPhones and iPads and Android devices.

Indeed the general idea persists that compared with the capabilities of mobile platforms as app platforms, the Web is under powered, lacks the kinds of capabilities Apps rely on.

Meanwhile a funny thing or three happened.

A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral

Particularly in business applications, Software as a service, and a thousand different specialised apps transformed the traditional desktop software landscape. And rarely if ever are these apps you download to your laptop–they live entirely in the browser. For years now, the overwhelming majority of a user’s time on their laptop and desktop devices is spent in the browser. Not necessarily browsing the web, rather using apps that live in the browser.

Have you got a native Gmail client on your Mac or Windows machine? Is there a Google sheets app for your laptop? Even consumer apps are largely browser based–there’s no Instagram or Snap or Tik Tok or Netflix app for Mac OS or Windows–people use these in their browser on their laptop and desktop.

More recently we’ve seen really complex sophisticated applications that it was hard to imagine coming to the Web, like Photoshop do just that.

And Figma is perhaps the exemplar of a sophisticated web-native application. One that not just happens to run in the browser, but is a web-native experience.

The increasing sophistication of the standards underpinning the Web (advances in CSS, Web animation, WebUI, Web Assembly, the JavaScript language, browser capabilities like workers, offline technologies like appcache Service Worker, and more) enable these increasingly capable applications that don’t just replicate the features of desktop applications but enable new models of interaction (like Figma and Miro’s massive multi-player collaborative approach to collaboration) that are essentially impossible with the traditional desktop paradigm.

Sure sure but what about mobile?

But what about mobile? Here the capabilities of the Web have in fairness lagged over native platforms.

One reason has been the browser engine monoculture of iOS. You may use Chrome or Edge or Brave on your iPhone, but you’re really using the same browser engine under all that UI. Apple, for not entirely cynical reasons, mandates no app can implement its own rendering engine, and must rely on on the iOS system browsing component.

Why? Apple argues (not without reason) that browser engines are a very high-risk attack vector for hackers (a browser by necessity must be deeply embedded into the operating system it runs on, and have system privileges few apps really need).

And Apple is legendarily focussed on the battery life of their devices. The original iPhone throttled the performance of its already not particularly powerful CPU in order to extend battery life. And as anyone who uses a browser knows, browsers can be extraordinarily demanding on a device’s performance (and so battery life) and system memory (another thing that’s typically in shorter supply on mobile devices than laptops and desktops).

But regulators around the world, in particular in the EU, have started to take seriously the negative impacts on competition this browser monoculture has had on the capabilities of the web in comparison with native platforms.

And we saw with the recent release of Safari 16.4 a huge number of really welcome additions to Safari on iOS, particularly features that allow a deeper integration of Web apps into the user experience, with Web Push, notifications, badging (think of the little numbers in your mail client that’ll you how many emails you have unread), as well as a raft of new CSS and other features.

Apple traditionally too has kept a lot of major announcements for WWDC, just a week or so away, so I’m excited to see what additional new capabilities we might see announced there.

I expect the Australian and EU competition regulators will put pressure on Apple to allow browser engines from at least trusted browsers, and for this to bring the sort of competitive pressure on Apple to keep up with in particular Chrome. But the timescales there are likely years not months.

What does that mean for the web?

Just as we saw the traditional desktop app largely replaced by web based apps, I imagine this trend will play itself out on mobile devices. So, does that mean native apps will go away?

Just as with the desktop, native apps will remain, for years if not decades. But the places in which the Web is sufficiently capable as a mobile app platform (I’ve not user a native Twitter app for years even on iOS, relying on Twitter’s capable web app) will grow, and the case for targetting different platforms with multiple code bases will increasingly be difficult to make.

A slew of new browser capabilities are already, here, or emerging, from low level capabilities like Web Assembly, to UI improvements like view transitions.

And what’s not even remotely on most people’s radar are capabilities like WebGPU (giving a web app access to a devices’s GPUs, central not just to the graphics capabilities of modern devices, but vital to performant AI applications) and WebNN–a neural network (another technology central to modern AI applications) in your browser.

The challenge of native apps saw the emergence of the single page web app architecture and the rise of associated frameworks like Angular, and React.

A lot of the complexity and weight associated of these were there to enable the sort of interaction patterns that native app developers got “for free” from the native platforms.

My instinct is this is changing–that the Web platform will increasingly do that heavy lifting–and perhaps we’re seeing a new architecture for web apps already emerging.

The web has never stood still–its transformation over the last 3 decades, from a text-only medium of static pages, to a complex rich platform that enables a huge array of interactive experiences and apps isn’t slowing down. One thing for certain is news of its death are greatly exaggerated.

Web Directions Code, Melbourne June 8 and 9

Helping you keep up with all this stuff is why we put together our conferences–and next up is Code in Melbourne.

We’re covering the things we believe you as a front end developer need to be thinking about now and in the near term. So grab a ticket and we’ll see you there.

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Dave Greiner Founder, Campaign Monitor