The print copy of Wired magazine’s September issue arrived in my mailbox with an eye-catching orange cover proclaiming the death of the Web. The feature article by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff (http:// www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/) points out with a colorful graphic that while we may be spending a great deal of time sharing information over the Internet, we are increasingly not using the World Wide Web as our primary interface. We are entering a world where devices, applications, and services are our entry point to content on the Internet.
I am probably a typical example of the behavior described by Anderson. Instead of reading the New York Times or Wall Street Journal in a browser, I have dedicated applications for those publications. I stream Netflix either through an application or via my Wii. iTunes, LastFM, and Pandora are my music portals, as well as where I stream many podcasts and radio shows. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Skype, where I carry on a fair amount of my communications, are all applications, not plain vanilla browser interfaces. Most, if not all of these, do have browser-based interfaces that I could use but they lack some of the functionality I have come to expect. Although, Anderson’s article was pilloried in some tech circles for its misleading use of graphics (http://www.boingboing.net/2010/08/17/is-the-web-really-de.html), and overstating known trends (http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/17/wired-web-dead/), his article and post highlighted a growing problem with our interactions online, not just for users, but also for content creators, aggregators, and libraries.
Back in the mid to late 1990s, development of online journal platforms was challenged by the need to test out the various browsers (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Timeline_of_web_browsers.svg) to see how a site would be rendered and to ensure that the site functioned properly however users accessed it. In the early days of Web publishing, browser differences could make a site nearly unreadable on some of them. Testing on different versions of Netscape, Internet Explorer, Mosaic, or Opera was a critical component of pre-launch work to ensure that the coding was appropriate for the rendering. This is less the case now, although some variations remain.
Today, we’re stepping back to those days of needing a proprietary software application and perhaps losing the interoperability we’ve come to take for granted with the Web. Jonathan Zittrain (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/jzittrain) at the Harvard Berkmen Center for Internet and Society (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu) is one of those watching this trend and who decries the move away from open standards and integrated technology, which he argues drove the success of the Web.
If we are indeed moving to the “Age of the App” where Internet users have to interact with content via some interface that is not a browser, this will have significant implications for publishers. While I am a big fan of publication- specific apps, such as Slate, the NY Times, the Wall St Journal, Wired and others, not every publisher — indeed most publishers — are not in a position to create and maintain such an app. They’d also have to modify the app for the iPad platform, the Android platform, the Blackberry platform, various e-readers, etc. Plus there are all the devices that may develop next year or three years from now and all the different device’s software upgrades that go on continuously. A figure quoted frequently earlier this year during the American Association of Publishers/Professional Scholarly Publishing meeting was that a good custom-built app could cost upwards of $50,000, not counting the cost of the postrelease support and tweaking. A publisher’s $50,000 development investment might have a shelf life of 12-18 months because of upgrades to the platform operating system that require an app upgrade or complete redesign. If building one $50,000 application is on the verge of being too expensive for your organization, building three or four is simply not an option.
The cost alone would be a big impediment for many smaller publishers. An even more critical problem is that the publisher now has an application that works on selected devices but not on others, resulting in only partial penetration within the community for the publisher. The user is also affected by having to install (and possibly purchase) a different app for every publication and launch a new app when switching publications. Clicking on links within the publication can launch yet another app (or ironically, a Web browser window). The library community is further challenged by serving diverse communities only some of whom may access a portion of the licensed content.
Operating system changes, platform dependencies, and user demands for increased functionality have been problems since the advent of electronic publishing. But the World Wide Web’s success, especially as an information distribution platform, was due to its ability to circumvent most of these issues and that ability was due to the underlying standards infrastructure. The era we seem to be entering is taking us back to those earlier problems, multiplied by a much larger variety of devices to support. In an App world, the only standards are the de facto proprietary platform standards used by each device. Although there is some advocacy for standards, such as EPUB for eBooks, most eBooks are still issued in the proprietary format of each e-reader usually wrapped by some form of DRM, or the EPUB formatted publication is overlaid with the publisher’s navigation app. From a user perspective, interoperability is even more critical than ever, because few people have only one device and they need to be able to move their content between their smartphone and their laptop, or their PDA and their organization’s file server. This is exactly the kind of interoperability that requires the use of common standards, not proprietary applications.
Smaller publishers will likely have to partner with aggregators to deliver their content, much as they did with pooling resources for Webbased distribution platforms like HighWire, Project Muse, or BioOne. As yet such aggregators have not launched device specific applications. For the moment only larger publishers are venturing into the app space, such as the American Institute of Physics with their iResearch iPhone App (http://scitation.aip.org/labs/10_15_09_iresearch_iphone_app) released last year or the Nature Publishing Group (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/naturecom/id349659422?mt=8) and Public Library of Science (PLOS) (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/plos-medicine/id362137769?mt=8), each with multiple apps distributed through the iTunes store. Highlighting the underlying problem, though, is the fact that all of these applications are for the Apple iPhone or iPad, not for other platforms. Although OCLC has allowed its WorldCat data to be served up via third-party applications on a range of platforms, OCLC itself has also only developed for the Apple suite of products.
And where are libraries in this new app world? With ever-shrinking budgets, libraries can’t afford to manage a digital collection with multiple proprietary versions of each content item and all the apps required to run them. If a library chooses (or is forced through budget constraints) to “standardize” on one or a few devices and platforms, they are then limiting the availability of content to what has been developed for those platforms. Just like smaller publishers, libraries will likely need to work with one or more aggregators to ensure access to all the desired content — when or if such aggregators are available at an affordable price. The preservation issues will also become even more complicated than they currently are in the browser-based environment, where libraries are still struggling with how to ensure preservation of content. As if preservation of digital content alone were not difficult enough, there is ample proof of how difficult preservation of content is in a world dependent on hardware and software integration.
Without open standards and open platforms, building applications to reach the end user will be ever more expensive, the availability of content could become limited by the choice of a device, and the cross-publisher and cross-platform linking we have come to depend on could break down. If we are indeed moving away from the era of the Web and toward one where the application is king, we need to start thinking about and advocating for the standards that will make the new world as accessible and interoperable as the one we’re leaving.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.