The PC’s Death Might Also Mean the Web’s Demise

webBy Marcus Wohlsen

The long, torturous death throes of the PC grew more excruciating than ever last year. Several research firms say PC shipments plunged a record 10 percent last year, the steepest drop ever. But, as smartphones and tablets take over our world, it’s not just laptops and desktops that could wind up on the pile of dead tech. They may drag the web down with them.

Keith Rabois thinks so, and he’s not alone. PayPal mafioso Rabois has a good tech track record. After his early involvement in PayPal, he helped bootstrap LinkedIn. He backed social photo startup Slide, which Google bought for nine figures. And he was chief operating officer at Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s mobile payments company Square. Now, he works as an investor at Khosla Ventures, and he believes the end of the PC also means the web is over.

The gist of the argument is this: as app-happy mobile devices become the primary way we compute, the good old browser becomes irrelevant. The hyperlinked, free-flowing, egalitarian, and ubiquitous world wide web will fade away. Instead, digital existence will mostly transpire within the more self-contained domains of individual apps, which offer their creators the flexibility and power of building right into the mobile operating systems. We will still have the internet, but it won’t be the same wherever you use it. And some will have more power over it than others.

In the WIRED cover story “The Web Is Dead,” former editor-in-chief Chris Anderson said much the same thing in August, 2010:

Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule. And it’s the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen). The fact that it’s easier for companies to make money on these platforms only cements the trend.

More than three years later, the trend has only accelerated. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously disavowed his company’s effort to build a cross-platform mobile app in HTML5 — the lingua franca of the web — in favor of OS-specific native apps. And many places in the developing world are experiencing a phenomenon known as “leapfrogging,” moving straight from no internet at all to the web-shy world of mobile, due mainly to the lower cost of entry and the absence of the heavy physical infrastructure required to support broadband PC use.

Large swaths of the world — and just about every elementary schoolkid today — experiences computing mainly through native mobile apps. The browser is — at most — just one of many ways of connecting. This does not bode well for the web as a central venue of the interconnected life.

What we lose is openness. On the web, anyone can publish anything for almost nothing, and it will look pretty much the same across a world of machines. This was the original appeal that drove the web’s early growth. Maybe as a new generation discovers that joy, the web will gain new life. It may not be as popular as it once was, but maybe it will become as cool as it was in the halcyon days of the mid-1990s, when anyone in the know felt like they had a whole new world all to themselves.

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