Will Mobile Apps Put You Out Of Work?

In August Chris Andersen and Michael Wolf wrote an article for Wired Magazine under the title, The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet. The article talks about how the internet is moving away from the wide open web as viewed through a browser and toward a semi-closed web viewed through apps.

This paradigm shift has many implications that impact web designers as well as SEOs and I want to talk about this shift and what it means for those of us working online by looking at some of the other articles that have followed the Wired article and adding my thoughts to the mix.

iPhone home screen with folders of apps

Apps Are Here to Stay. Long Live Apps

I’m guessing many of you own a smart phone and possibly another mobile device capable of connecting to the internet. I own both an iPhone and an iPad and I have to agree that more and more I use an app instead of a browser to interact with content online.

Chris begins his portion of the Wired article describing a typical day in which you check email on an ipad or smart phone and move on to using Twitter and Facebook apps. Maybe you take in the NY Times and read through a list of feeds in two more apps. At the end of the day you unwind by playing games against friends on the Xbox Live or watch a movie over Netflix.

You’ve spent the day on the Internet β€” but not on the Web. And you are not alone.

More and more we’re using the Internet to to transport information, but less and less we’re using the browser to display and interact with that information.

Even on your computer you might choose an app over the web. For example I hardly every visit Twitter the website. Since the beginning I’ve used one of available desktop clients. Same for Facebook. Most of the content I absorb online comes in though my rss reader. This post will mostly be written in a couple of programs residing on my desktop only passing through the WordPress admin briefly as a last check before publishing.

Search engines can’t crawl apps. html isn’t the dominant language across apps. Many of the things you and I do as part of our jobs aren’t as prevalent inside apps as they are on the web itself. Surely this will affect us.

Theme design for Apple's app store

Chris points out how this shift was inevitable, citing past industries with similar change and pointing out that while most of us might intellectually appreciate openness we inevitably choose the path of least resistance. Apps are simply easier and often better than their website counterparts.

In Michael’s part of the article he also argues this shift is inevitable, but for a different reason. Business can make more money through apps than through the web. Most of us won’t pay to read the news on a website, yet many of us will happily shell out a few bucks to have the paper delivered to us via an app.

None of this is to say the web is going away and the browser will die an ugly death. Apps won’t kill the web any more than the web killed tv, tv killed radio, or radio killed print. We’ll be using our browser (another app) to visit web pages for quiet some time.

While I use more and more apps, I still inevitably find most through a web page in my browser. And as great as apps might be, there’s a limit to how many we can download and realistically use before their number overwhelms us. The web through a browser isn’t going away any time soon.

Still this shift is taking place and will only accelerate as more or us carry and use internet capable mobile devices like smart phones and tablets.

seo is dead

SEO is Dead. Long Live SEO

Not long after the Wired article debuted, Barry Adams wrote about the potential death of seo for The Fire Horse Trail. Barry isn’t predicting seo’s demise so much as it’s change in the face of the move toward apps.

Again search engines can’t crawl apps and if that’s where content resides how will search engines crawl and index and rank content?

Websites still are and will be for some time the primary way we interact with content online. It’s not as though you’re going to wake up tomorrow in a world without them or a world without Google. 10 years from now we may not be using our browser as much as we do now, but we’ll likely still be using it.

As I mentioned above there are only so many apps you can realistic download and use. A browser can easily be the catchall app for all the apps we don’t inevitably download and use.

Graphic by TopRank showing cycle of social media and seo

Even with the shift it doesn’t mean seo goes away. True the ‘s’ and ‘e’ stand for search engine, but over the last few years seo has become a lot more than optimizing for search engines. Most SEOs are aware of how it fits in with marketing in general and I’d suggest many SEOs are more internet marketers who place a special focus on search engines.

Sure we’ll use apps, but how will we find them? Maybe we won’t be finding them all through a browser, but we’ll be searching for new apps somewhere. SEOs will likely adapt and help make apps more visible wherever we happen to search for them.

The specifics and technical details might change, but the basic skills will stay the same and will transfer.

SEO won’t die. It will evolve. It’s about helping your content be found through a search engine. Who’s to say that search engine has to be one we access in a browser. It could just as easily be one accessed through an app store.

Design is inspiration

Web Design is Dead. Long Live Web Design

More recently Cameron Chapman asked Does The Future Of The Internet Have Room For Web Designers?. Cameron’s article quickly spawned a couple of follow up articles disagreeing with here conclusions.

Cameron’s argument follows from the Wired article. As we move toward apps and away from the browser, web pages, and html web designers will become less relevant. She mentions the limit to using too many apps and suggests aggregator apps will arise and much web content will flow to us through those aggregator apps.

Cameron points to companies like Facebook and Google wanting the web to flow through them. You and I might have a Google and Facebook app and those two apps would determine what the content we see looks like.

While I think many of her points are valid, Cameron’s article misses on a number of points. One section of her article has a heading that starts “Content is king and design is becoming less relevant.” I’ll point you back to my post from last week, Why You Need Design to show why this makes no sense.

Someone is going to be making sure that content is legible and can be read and that person will be a designer. Can we finally get past the limited view of what design is? From the article

for most users, design is irrelevant.

Sure, if you ask them, but not if you track how they actually behave. Design matters, it always has and it always will. Once again the quote above is equating design and aesthetics as the same thing. They are not and I have to say I’m growing very tired of people who consider themselves to be designers not making the distinction.

What is graphic design?

While there will be a shift away from web pages and toward apps let’s understand that as far as design is concerned all that’s changing is the medium. What’s changing is the technology that delivers the design. All the same design fundamentals will still exist. Some web designers won’t take on the challenge of learning the new technology, many others will.

In the same way some print designers decided to stick with print design, some web designers will decide to stick with web design. There’s nothing wrong with either. Print still exists after the web and the web will still exist after the app.

Cameron’s suggestion that content will be aggregated similar to rss makes sense, but that doesn’t mean we won’t still visit the sites where that content originated. I can’t speak for you, but I still click through many of my rss feed to their html pages or other pages those feeds link to. Sometimes I just want to read the text. Sometimes I want more.

Sometimes I want to comment or join a forum discussion. Will those be aggregated too? Consider the difference in depth you already see when comparing a conversation viewed through a Twitter app to one seen on a forum website.

Wikipedia and Google logos

If Facebook or Google becomes the aggregator, who is it that will be creating all the content they aggregate. Will you and I create that content if there’s zero benefit to us? I won’t. Will Google be sharing the ad revenue from our content? Will Facebook? Why would either of us create content for them if they don’t?

Presumably those aggregators would still be linking back to our sites at the very least. Many blogs only publish partial posts as it stands now. Would they do any different in the future of apps?

I suppose the idea is that instead of building websites for ourselves we’re going to build spaces within these aggregators. I’ve already talked about why I think this is a bad idea and how these other sites should serve as outposts as compared to our home base websites.

Again let’s keep in mind the browser too is an app and a very good one at that. On my iPhone I don’t open Safari a lot to surf the web. The screen is too small and my fingers prefer not to type on a phone. An app is much more convenient.

Things are different on my iPad. The real estate makes surfing one of the things I do most and I’m not slowed at all when having to type. The browser doesn’t go away on mobile devices. It’s still a commonly used app for me anyway.

Another point in the article is how many mobile designs look unremarkably the same implying that design is no longer necessary. Mobile design is still a relatively new thing. Many mobile designs still look the same because we’re only just now focusing on it.

The first iPhone went on sale in June of 2007 and the app store debuted a year later. We’re only 2 years into this app revolution.

Remember what the state of web design was 2 years after the Mosaic browser debuted setting off the web revolution. It wasn’t pretty. Then along came designers consistently improving the web interface. People may never think they care about design, but care they do. Design isn’t going anywhere.

htm5 slide from Voices That Matter Web Design Conference 2010 in San Francisco, CA

Can html5 Save the Web?

Earlier I mentioned how the shift to apps is often one of the path of least resistance. If a native app is more convenient than a web app, we’re going to choose to use the native app.

html5 and associated technologies offer the promise of better web apps. The technologies haven’t been widely adopted yet, but they probably will before long. Is it possible the next wave of web apps could shift the balance back toward the web through a browser? I doubt that will happen to any large degree, but it’s always possible. If a web app is the more convenient option it will be the option chosen.

Most native apps still offer a limited amount of features as compared to their web app counterpart. Most people might never care about what’s missing, but some will. If you know a web app delivers more, there’s still a good chance you’ll choose the web app.

html5 will likely make web apps more feature rich so it is possible there will be some shift back to the web.

Overall though, I think we are going to continue moving toward native apps on a mobile device. The apps will get better and more of us will own Internet capable mobile devices.

In the end it matters not if all web pages go away and only apps remain. Those apps will still be designed and today’s web designer will transition to become tomorrow’s app designer. Apps won’t make design irrelevant. They’ll simply change the delivery of the design.

iPad home screen showing apps


There’s no question we’re seeing a shift in how we access and interact with content on the Internet. Apps are here to stay and will only grow more popular as more of us own smart phones and as tablets begin to fill the market. Our tvs will soon become more app friendly as will our cars and our refrigerators. At some point the web won’t be our primary way to connect online.

That doesn’t mean the web will go away. And it doesn’t mean SEOs and web designers will go away either. What it means is we’ll likely have to adapt the same way we always have. Maybe the next language you learn will be Cocoa as opposed to jQuery, but how much will that really be different from what you do now?

The basic principles of design, the basic ideas of marketing won’t change. Web designers will become app designers and SEOs will still be SEOs. Neither industry will die, but both will need to adapt and those who adapt quicker, those who begin preparing for the future sooner will find themselves in a great position in the coming years.

Spider web

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  1. “search engines can’t crawl apps and if that’s where content resides how will search engines crawl and index and rank content?”

    Erm, I think you missed something. Most popular apps such as News and Social sites, get their data from a centralized data feed … feeds that search engines DO crawl. These apps are often just XML news feeds, that people seem to like paying for.

    All that will happen with the increase of App adoption, is that the content will be easier and quicker for search engines to crawl, if most people access it via an app, than in a html website template.

    • Nope. Didn’t miss anything. The apps I’m talking about in this post aren’t the ones you’re thinking about. The content would be directly inside the app itself and sent to your phone or table or other app driven device. Those apps search engines can’t read.

      This post is commenting on a few articles that are considering a time in the future when most of us will be consuming content through an app that doesn’t get information from an xml feed.

      You’re thinking web app. Think of an app you use on an iPhone or Android based phone that isn’t pulling feeds from a website.

  2. Absolutely not. The Internet and computers will ALWAYS be around which means I will ALWAYS have a job. Mobile apps are NOT the future. Think about it…let’s take cell phones for example. There are millions upon millions of people how have cell phones JUST for talking that could care less about the Internet or the applications. PLUS carriers still have to convince people to not only sign a contract for 2 years (or whatever the length is), they also have to convince those people to pay $30+/month EXTRA on-top of the cell phone bill. Not a sweet pill to the average consumer to swallow. The medium will change (televisions with Google TV for example), but not to strictly mobile.

    • I have to agree with you Ryan. Yes apps are becoming popular but other mediums are gaining momentum besides cell phones. Within the next few years television will be a major player. The point is we are no longer just designing for desktops and laptops screens. As designers we solve visual problems and the biggest one today is visually translating someone websites and/or brand to accommodate various screen sizes. Just take a look at website designs for google tv.

      • I think you nailed it. It’s not just cell phones. Apps will be in many more places.

        The important this is they’ll still need to be designed. Maybe it won’t be html and css being used, but visual design is still visual design and all the same principles will apply.

    • Ryan I agree the web will be here. I don’t think it’s going away. And I agree that right now many people use phones as phones only. However it’s pretty easy to see more and more people are using smart phones. Think 5 or 10 years ahead and probably all cell phones will be smart phones. Add in the tablets that are coming and the merging of Internet and TV.

      You’re looking at where things are at this moment. You have to think of what the situation will be a few years from now.

      Again though I don’t think the web is going away and I’m sure you’ll still have a job. I wouldn’t assume you’ll always have a job though. Things change and they often change rapidly.

  3. Hmm… maybe it’s me ( but i think it isn’t ), but allmost a same like article has been written on smashing a while a go.


    Over there allready a big discussion has started about apps and webdesign in general.

    i suggest you read the comments on the smashing article, witch will tell you BIG time that the suggestion of this article is even more than wrong. With lots of reasons why.

    Saying things like apps replacing normal design, like webdesign etc ( witch is the bottom line here ), is realy not well thought through if you ask me.

    One of the biggest reasons is commerce. Every business will need their own identity, the need to draw attention or whatever. And not just businesses. Also people will always have that need. I mean, if that wasn’t the case we all been driving that one same clean car to work every day by now. Or wearing the same cloths for that matter.

    Besides reasons like that, i think there’s one big other problem with apps; and that’s: Costs.

    The varity of platforms is too big. Businesses can’t afford every time to just develop an app for each platform. While on the other hand the progressing development of html and css are so high that it can replace apps and it does not have to be build each time for different platforms.

    So MAYBE, it’s even the other way around:

    Apps wil disappear because a couple of languages like html will take over. Think about it: with just one browser like application in your house, on your phone, the computer, maybe even your car; and every single site/app/navigation/whatever will work in just that one thing: the browser(like-app)

    πŸ˜› wouldn’t that be a great thing πŸ˜‰

    • Maybe you missed it, but much of this post is a reply to the Smashing Magazine post you linked to, a post I mostly disagreed with. I also linked to that post in this post.

      I’m not buying your argument here though. html is not going to take over. It’s what’s already here. If you look around people are using apps more and more and visiting websites less and less. I don’t think it’s a problem for those of us who design websites. There will still be plenty of websites around, again something I mentioned in the post, and we can still apply our skills to design the apps that will come.

  4. Great Article. Kudos for sharing your knowledge of design and how it relates to the industry and business of web/internet and marketing. As the technology changes so too will our skills. Just look at HTML5, a great example of a standard going through a big change to keep up with technological advances–especially geo-location and multimedia.

    Mobile web is going to be huge–especially when you look at developing countries and their growing economies (India, China, Brazil, Nigeria, etc.)

    Web developers need to study and learn programming languages–Java, Cocoa, C# are all powerful platforms to dynamically deliver content via the internet. Designers will always be around, but at the same time competition is very stiff so if you are a designer I suggest you really hone in on your skills–the cream always rises to the top.

    Again great article–much more articulate than the ones you reference–I hope smashing puts this on their front page!

    • Thanks Asher. I appreciate the kind words.

      Good point about places like India, China, etc. If I’m not mistaken more people are already connecting to the Internet through a mobile device than through a computer in Japan. Don’t hold me to that though.

      You just have to think about how we can easily carry around a phone and to a lesser extent a tablet. The desktop computer stays home and for the most part the laptop does too.

      I completely agree about learning more programming languages. I’ve started reading up on Cocoa lately and when I can find some time I’m wanting play around creating an app for the iPhone and iPad. Wish me luck.

    • I agree, but can see ‘mobile web’ being just part of it. Apple have proven people will pay to access a restricted web (by this, I mean limiting access to content based on political, lisencing and technological reasons) if it means they can access the content they want access to.

      Enough people actually don’t care about free content, MVK video, Flash, Java or the other trillions of content that is available, if it means they can visit Youtube and download music from iTunes.

      Most of these people bought computers not for work, but for entertainment, which was vastyly only available by computers. Now that mobile devices and TVs can provide basic content like video and email access, most people won’t have need for computers … they’ll be reserved for people that want more than a few limited services. Sadly, it is already looking like much GUI design will be replaced by the interfaces of the products that will cater such services through TV, but that will just mean a boom in video creativity.

  5. Yeah i read it was a sort of a reply but still it’s about the very same thing.

    The html argument is not the biggest argument in my comment above. The biggest is and always will, is the human need and maybe bigger: the commercial need, to express and stand out.

    Therefor the ‘webdesign’ as we know it will always be.

    The statement of people using more and more apps and browsing the web less and less; is mostly under mobile devices.

    But still, it wouldn’t surprice me if browser based apps would take the lead. For example look at the new posibilty in windows 7 to put a website down in the taskbar as if it where a programm. I know…. it’s windows.. microsoft… but still.. a tiny step πŸ™‚

    And for exmaple the iPad. Wonderful device. But if a company comes to me for say a newslike app on the ipad, but they also want on android based pads. And i say: What you want can all be done with a browser based app, and with that it’s compatible on ipad and all other pads: what do you think the company will choose?

    I do like your article btw and i forgot to mention that in my previous comment πŸ™‚

    It brings up big discussions but that’s what a good article is all about πŸ™‚

    • Oh yeah, it’s definitely about the same thing. Sorry if it came across as I was trying to imply this was a completely different discussion. Definitely the same one.

      I agree with you about the web not going anywhere and apps right now being mostly confined to mobile devices. However I think more people are migrating from computer to mobile device. Consider all the nations where the primary connection to the Internet is a cell phone.

      Also while tablets aren’t going to replace laptops or desktops any time soon, they still take away some of our time in front of either laptop or desktop. I think it’s fair to say that a certain amount of design that would have been done on a website will end up being done inside an app.

      In the end I don’t think anything drastically changes for those of us who are web designers or SEOs. Some of the technical details of what we do will likely change, but they were going to change anyway. They always do.

      I guess I’m more thinking that starting soon there will be more opportunities for some of us to be designing apps and that depending on how much o a shift occurs there may be less opportunities designing websites.

      Of course the reality is none of us really know what’s going to happen. For all we know some new wonderful technology or device is going to come along next month and push everything in a completely different direction. Part of the fun of working with technology is trying to keep up. πŸ™‚

  6. I don’t believe any one technology will replace another. All things have good points and bad points.
    Consumers will use what’s easier/more convenient. Older generations, what they are familiar with.

    Things evolve!

    Record players > From the home to the DJ scene.
    (Some, yes digital.)

    Cassettes > Okay you got me there!

    CD’s > Sold at bands live shows.

    Cameras > funsavers are still around.

    Brick and mortar Blockbuster evolves into RedBox.

    Newbury comics > Selling anything else.

    Bookstores > Older generation

    Many of those same things people speculated would die are still around. Unless the concept is truly awkward or not user friendly there is enough space at the table.

    • I agree. I don’t think mobile apps will replace the web. I do think they’ll take market share away, but websites aren’t going anywhere in the near future. Now ask me what things will look like 100 years from now and I might say the Internet as we know will look completely different.

      Things do evolve yes and they don’t go away overnight. Still they can go away in time. It’s just that most of us aren’t around long enough to see when that happens.

  7. Then there is still nothing to worry about.

    A no-web app on a phone, is equal to an application like Word on someones laptop, which simply accesses data they created. To share that knd of data would be a potential data privacy violation, so that ain’t going to happen.

    So, what kind of data are you talking about, that search engines typically have access to, that a non-web app should?

    • All I’m saying is a search engine can’t crawl the content of an app you download directly to a smart phone or tablet. Unless that content isn’t also accessible somewhere on the web. The same way they can’t crawl the Word Document on your computer.

      If content is placed directly inside apps as is being done more and more than search engines won’t see it or be able to present that content in their results.

      I wasn’t suggesting there’s anything to worry about. The whole point of this post is that there isn’t anything to worry about.

  8. I’ll always have a job. As you stated before, design is design. Whether or not I will have to take the time to painstakingly convert my PSD or PNG files into working HTML/CSS/etc is something different. Companies will always need someone to design their product and programmers will always need someone to design their software. The beauty of being a designer is we are liquid to any medium – it’s just a matter of how far WE take our knowledge of making our design do something. I guess that’s why I’m always ‘in school’ πŸ™‚

    • Exactly. Cameron’s article for Smashing Magazine was trying to draw the conclusion that we might not have jobs in the future and I was trying to make the point we still would. Who really cares if our designs don’t end being developed with html and css.

      Design itself isn’t going anywhere. I like the “liquid in any medium phrase.” That’s what it really comes down to. We’re always learning. Maybe some of us will need to start learning languages we aren’t now, but it doesn’t really change anything.

  9. In that case, for others reading, we need to make sure that they don’t mistake private data for public data (though I would never consider data private on current mobile devices, especially the iPhone).

    Personal data should not be searched via a public search engine for that very reason. If a user wants their data to be searched, they are either hosting it themselves and should provide a way to share it, or are unknowingly sharing that data using a centralized source, such as it typical with social apps (whether it caches data locally or not).

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