The Anti-Web Movement Is Gathering Pace

It’s created billions in sales, gave media companies their first taste of the internet, encouraged self-expression where there was oppression and caused an explosion in publisher plurality.

But, after 15 years as the net’s publishing platform of choice, a movement is growing that wants to put the web back in its box.

Blame the “app”. With little prior culture of mobile web consumption, publishers have barely given their HTML efforts five minutes in the sun before preferring to code snazzy, custom, closed interfaces instead in the likes of Xcode and Objective-C, in iPhone’s case.

After the desktop OS and browser wars of the late 90s settled down in to uniform web standards, many of us had thought the web, which runs through my veins, would become the mobile platform of choice in the same way. But, the rise of the revenue-making app store sales channel has coincided with publishers’ realisation that, if there are precious few ways of monetising content on the desktop web, then little would be different on the handset or tablet flavour.

Many publishers now seem frustrated with the lack of profit and the loss of character that comes with formulaic, template-driven pages. It’s the first big challenge to the web orthodoxy we have enjoyed for nearly two decades

In a March edition of Wired, of all things, the magazine’s design director called HTML “clunky”, “a central problem” and merely “a design experiment” that “never really succeeded in the way that we had hoped”.

Yes, that’s the same Wired whose HotWired portal – one of the web’s first commercial magazines, launched in 1994 – successfully delivered some of the most radical and un-web-like native pages seen online, even to date. So, for the coming tablet wave, Wired enlisted Adobe (NSDQ: ADBE) to build an app that, at core, reproduces printed monthly pages. As a revenue opportunity, thanks to the app store, it’s worked so far; but it’s a bit like abandoning your native tongue to speak in a more profitable, metropolitan dialect.

Just look at the heady ways in which publishers like Sports Illustrated have been re-imagining magazines for these new devices – they either reproduce the core magazine pages in a retrograde, sub-web fashion, or go for whiz-bang, flashy multimedia that the web, at least without Flash, is otherwise ill-suited to.

The former – the print-like digital experience – is an ideal paradigm for The Age Of Austerity, allowing publishers to scale back expensive, unprofitable web development to focus on what they know best and from which money, via app stores, can be made. After 15 years of divorcing content from medium to become platform-agnostic multimedia publishers, some are now coming to see digital in print’s image.

In the UK, the iPad app for The Times, which has published a rolling news site for years, comes in spartan daily “editions”, as though it were delivered by a paperboy in the good ‘ol days.

The very way that we present content on the web is being reshaped by tablets and ye olde linear newsprint that they seek to mimic. Just look at how Safari’s new Reader feature “removes annoying ads and other visual distractions” (ie. all the things the web’s good at, the very things publishers have placed on their page deliberately), paring articles down to their intrinsic text core. It’s like printing off the web as a PDF.

And witness how veteran web hacker Phil Gyford has recreated, using its API, in to an edition that more closely resembles a page-turner newspaper, ideally suited to the laconic new era of tablets.

What stands to be lost? Sure; through a new focus on lean-back consumption over sit-forward distraction, the hyperactive attention deficit that comes with continual self-satisfied link clicking will dissipate. But so may the marvellous connections that the open web affords between people and content and places and pages, the opportunity to freely publish in an open ecosystem and the serendipity of discovering something unexpected at the end of a mouse click.

But, as befits the continually evolving digital world, this appification hasn’t won out yet just yet. Apps and iPads may be the models du jour, but open, proprietary and other forms will likely co-exist, with portable and desktop publications evolving to find their true purposes amongst different stripes of customer. Experiments such as Gyford’s may also point to a future in which publishers get to present their content in these apparently more attractive, un-webby ways – without abandoning the web for a retrograde fall-back to desktop-like executable code

At Google’s I/O event in May, Sports Illustrated (NYSE: TWX) editor Terry McDonnell presented a version of his magazine’s app that looked almost exactly like SI’s pioneering iPad concept, yet which runs in the forthcoming upgraded HTML5 web standard, offers several web-specific extras and can be bought via Chrome Web Store, Google’s own upcoming, web-native app-buying shopfront.

It’s a vision of the snazzy new, publisher-led app profit world – seen through Google’s open, webby goggles, in what is a face-off of two competing ideologies. Google