When the original iPhone shipped in 2007, there was no app store, and you couldn’t install any third-party apps on the phone. But it didn’t matter, because the phone shipped with a stock app that was really the only app that mattered — the Safari web browser.
It’s easy to forget these days what a miracle mobile Safari was. But while the iPhone was neither the first nor the fastest smartphone available at the time, it certainly was the first smartphone to give you a high-quality web browsing experience. And that was crucial, because in the mid-aughts the web was the great equalizer. By having a fully featured web browser, the iPhone transcended the concept of phones and became a true pocket computer — a juggernaut.
On Wednesday September 9, Apple announced a new, massively upgraded Apple TV and the next iteration of its Watch OS.
Neither includes a web browser.
The internet of apps
The lack of a browser on the Apple Phone and Apple TV isn’t exactly shocking — neither the wrist nor the television screen provides an ideal browsing environment — but the failure to include them is a bit remarkable nonetheless.
After all, my Apple Watch features a watch-optimized version of Apple’s photo browsing software, even though a tiny screen on your wrist isn’t an ideal photo browsing environment. Apple engineers put it on there because they could, and because photos are integral to the overall Apple ecosystem. Technologically speaking, including a web browser on either device — but especially the television — would be trivial. A browser isn’t on there because Apple didn’t bother, and Apple didn’t bother because it no longer sees web browsing as central to its ecosystem.
In the desktop era, the World Wide Web was so central to the experience of the internet that for years the most popular web browser was literally called Internet Explorer. The internet was the web, and the thing you used to browse the web was the way you explored the internet.
The mobile world is very different.
With less screen space, processor power, and bandwidth available, the web browsing experience is less compelling. The web’s point-and-click navigation structure reeks of desktop-first design. And the challenge of monetizing mobile web views has driven major publishers to load their (okay, our) sites with ad technology that further reduces load times and increases reading hassles.
The mobile internet is primarily an internet of apps — my go-tos are Twitter, Instagram, and Messages, but obviously Facebook is dominant, and Pinterest, Snapchat, and a bevy of messaging apps are all coming on strong. On my Mac, I navigate to Amazon.com to buy things, but on my iPhone I fire up the Amazon app for a faster, more native experience. This is the Way We Internet Now, and on both the watch and the set-top box, Apple thinks the web is a ladder we can kick away in favor of native apps with UI that is optimized to the particular device. And it’s probably right.
The death of the web is bad for competition
Of course, one reason this makes sense for Apple is that as the world’s largest company, and as the owner of a smartphone juggernaut, the company can get people to invest the time and energy into building native apps.
Apple is big enough that a nontrivial number of companies found it worth their while to make apps even when the products had few users — or no users at all. And there is a virtuous circle in this. The guaranteed presence of third-party apps on day one will help sell Apple TVs, and the size of the Apple TV customer base will help drive the development of further apps.
A new entrant would have trouble pulling off that sort of thing.
Ironically, this is exactly why the web was so important to Apple early in the 21st century. For years, the company was stuck on the losing end of that circle. Most people wanted to use Windows PCs because they had all the software, and most people wanted to develop for Windows because it had all the users.
In that world, the web was a game changer for Mac users.
When browsing websites became the most important, most exciting thing to do with your computer, suddenly the Mac and the PC were put on a level playing field. Even better, when Apple rolled out the iPhone it didn’t need to get third parties to take speculative bets on the platform’s success. The “phone” could browse the web! By building the best pocketable web browser on the planet, Apple rocketed ahead of longtime handset incumbents in a way that was only possible because all the best stuff to do was just a few clicks away.
Of course, for Apple, the fact that the post-web internet makes it harder for the next Apple to arrive is only icing on the cake. And certainly Apple is under no obligation to remain a browser enthusiast just because the Web 2.0 era of browser-mania was very good for the company. Indeed, even if it did include token web browsers on its new products, it seems likely that nobody would use them. The technology fundamentals are dictating both user behavior and business strategy, not vice versa.
But as users and consumers, we should make no mistake — after a brief, entrant-friendly, web-first world, the technology universe is increasingly moving into an incumbent-friendly, app-first world.