This essay is part of Farhad Manjoo's continuing series on the future of innovation. Read the series introduction, Manjoo's story on the future of mobile gadgets, and readers' predictions on the future of mobile devices.
Last summer, in a much-read cover story, Wired proclaimed that the Web is dead. Chris Anderson, the magazine's editor, argued that loading pages in a browser is passé. The future, Anderson wrote, is in downloadable apps, which have several advantages over the Web. They're fast, they can be customized for specific purposes, and—perhaps most importantly—people seem to have no problem paying for them, which means that software and media companies have an incentive to keep creating more. Few of us, meanwhile, pay for Web content—and our reluctance, Anderson argued, spoke volumes about what we really want from our computers: "Much as we love freedom and choice, we also love things that just work, reliably and seamlessly."
Anderson's argument was instantly showered with criticism—much of it from people who write on the Web—but if you went beyond the blustery headline and graphics, it wasn't an unreasonable prediction. People spend a lot of time and money on apps these days, and many developers are indeed devoting more of their resources to apps than to the Web. Still, I've been skeptical of the Web-is-dead idea. The Web has one main advantage over apps: It works everywhere, and that's important in a post-Windows world. Since our computers, phones, and tablets use different operating systems, we need a single platform to unite them all. Sure, programmers can theoretically write different apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Palm, and every other gadget that comes along, but that doesn't seem tenable. Instead, they'll come to see the advantages of creating content and applications that work across devices. There's no better uniter than the Web.
But as I began to think about how the Internet will evolve—for this, the second article in my series on the future of tech—I found myself splitting the difference. Both Anderson's view—"The Web is dead!"—and my view—"Ditch the App Store!"—lack nuance. It seems safer and wiser to bet that the Web and apps will survive over the long run or, at least, for the next five years. Indeed, as mobile browsers and Web programming systems improve, the difference between sites you access from a browser and apps you download from a centralized store will surely shrink. Web sites will grow more adept at storing content locally (so you won't have to be online to use them), they'll get better at using your device's specialized hardware, and their interfaces will look and feel just as complex and responsive as those of native apps.
In other words, the fight between apps and the Web will be rendered moot. The two modes of getting online will become indistinguishable—you'll reach for the Web or apps or both, depending on the device you're using. The more relevant issue is that we'll all be getting online more, and for all kinds of tasks—listening to music, watching movies, reading books, playing games, doing office work, and communicating with friends and colleagues. Sun Microsystems' old slogan, "the network is the computer," gets truer every day. (It's telling that the slogan outlived the company.)
I don't think many people have internalized this future. When we buy computers and phones, we still check out how fast they are, how much RAM they've got, and how much storage space they carry. Apple will sell you a 16GB iPad 2 for just $500, but some people are willing to pay $200 more to get 64GB. Why? Because we haven't quite reached the stage when the specs of our gadgets cease to matter. In a few years, you won't care about local storage space nearly as much: As long as your machine can get access to fast broadband and can handle high-definition video, you'll be able to do pretty much anything with it. The device won't matter. The network will.
Let me be more specific: These days many people store e-mail, photos, and documents in the "cloud." It's possible that you get a lot of your entertainment via broadband lines, too (if you listen to Pandora, say, or spend your evenings with Netflix's streaming service). I predict that this trend will continue, but that we'll also see something more interesting. Instead of just using the network just to store data, we'll also rely on faraway servers for their processing power, too. For a taste of this, try OnLive, an Internet-gaming service that I've praised a couple times. OnLive lets you run high-def games—the kind that once required a monster PC or console—on rinky-dink hardware. OnLive does this by processing all of the video on very fast computers, then shuttling the images back to your machine over the Internet. This doesn't sound as if it should work, but it does, and very well, too. Now imagine the same process happening for other apps: You'd could edit video, crunch data sets, create music, or do other computationally complex tasks on your tablet or netbook—all the processing would take place far away, so seamlessly that you wouldn't notice anything amiss. This sounds fantastical. It's not. It's closer than you think.
Your devices' deeper integration with the Internet will change your life even if you don't do a lot of processor-intensive tasks. One of my favorite ideas about the future of computing is the notion of the "continuous client"—Joshua Topolsky's view that when we move from gadget to gadget, the stuff we're doing on one machine should travel with us. If you've got Slate and a spreadsheet open on your office computer when you leave for the day, the same windows should show up on your laptop at home, too. Right now, different companies are working on different aspects of this problem. Google's Chrome OS, which stores all data online, currently offers the most advanced implementation of the continuous client, but it's far from perfect. I suspect that continuity will be one of the main areas of interface innovation over the next few years. You'll use a plethora of gadgets made by different companies, but you'll pick up right where you left off as you flit from one to the next.
There is, of course, a huge question mark dangling over the network-enabled future I'm describing. This future depends on fast and ubiquitous broadband, which, in the oligopolistic American telecom market, isn't guaranteed to happen soon. Over the next few years, major American mobile carriers will adopt faster "4G" wireless Internet systems—but will they be fast, cheap, and reliable enough to spur the sort of innovation I'm describing? I don't know. Honestly, I'm pessimistic.
But even if the United States doesn't take part in this revolution, it's still going to happen. South Korea is working on a plan to increase its wired broadband speeds to 1 gigabit per second by the end of 2012, and it's aiming for wireless speeds of 10 megabits per second. These are roughly 10 times as fast as American broadband speeds. And it's not just South Korea; pretty much every other industrialized country has better broadband than we do. It's a scary thing to contemplate: If the network is the computer, and we don't have the network—what do we have?
What do you think—am I being too pessimistic about American broadband, or too optimistic about how the Internet will revolutionize our gadgets? Let me know your thoughts on the future of the Internet in the comments below. I'll discuss your ideas in a future column.