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The Internet is an innovation unlike virtually any other advance in human history. It was designed specifically to share information, openly, freely, and without constraint. Unlike most other inventions, it spread nearly directly from the research lab that developed it to consumers, without substantial meddling by external actors. There is virtually no way to create a monopoly in this market either. Even if Microsoft would love to keep consumers from visiting Apple’s website while using Internet Explorer, consumers would never stand for that limitation.Smartphone with cloud of application icons

The result has been an explosion of content and information sharing, which have benefits for both individual consumers and society as a whole. But these benefits also may be coming to an end due to the increased development and expansion of applications, in contrast to websites.

Recent surveys show that smartphone users spend 86 percent of their time interacting with apps and only 14 percent on the Web. Few consumers pay much attention to the difference; whether they visit Yelp online or download and use its app, they obtain virtually the same information. Yet the possibly unforeseen implications of this shift in behavior could be far reaching.

Primarily, apps are owned intellectual property. Apple can mandate that some apps work only on Apple products. Google’s new e-mail function, called Inbox, works on both Android and Apple’s iOS systems, but if users want to access their e-mail through the Web, they have to use Google’s Chrome browser. In addition, with app-based computing, the owners of the apps can set the rules for use. Thus for example, whereas Amazon as a web retailer just pays a transaction fee to credit card companies to accept this form of payment, Apple as an app supplier demands that the authors that sell apps on its store provide it with 30 percent of their earnings. Apple also has banned the use of bitcoin as a payment method.

Beyond the monetary implications, the notion that a few companies control which apps get published and supported implies the potential for a form of censorship. Google is unlikely to encourage an app that satirizes its products; Microsoft could easily prohibit apps that express political ideas contrary to its own. Such limitations also might hinder new forms of innovation, if app creators come up with ideas that threaten to disrupt the competitiveness of the big name companies. As the author of this article cautions, “It isn’t that today’s kings of the app world want to quash innovation, per se. It is that in the transition to a world in which services are delivered through apps, rather than the Web, we are graduating to a system that makes innovation, serendipity and experimentation that much harder for those who build things that rely on the Internet. And today, that is pretty much everyone.”

Discussion Question:

Are any of these concerns enough to make consumers stop using apps? Why or why not?

SOURCE: Christopher Mimms, “The Web Is Dying; Apps Are Killing It,” The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2014, http://www.wsj.com