25 Years After its Birth, the World Wide Web Becomes Appified

This post was originally published on Wired on March 14, 2014. 

Websites Are Dead; Long-Live Web Apps

Twenty-five years ago this week, Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web. He released the source code into the public domain in 1991, spurring rapid adoption and a global sea-change in the way we create, consume, and share information. In 1995, 14% of U.S. adults used the internet. Today that figure stands at 87%.

In recent years, mobile technologies have played an extensive role in widening global access to the web. Like the web itself, adoption of mobile has been remarkably fast. In less than seven years since the release of the first iPhone, smartphone adoption among Americans has jumped to 58%. Mobile internet traffic, primarily driven by apps, will comprise 25% of all web traffic by the end of the year. The rich and interactive experiences we have come to expect on mobile apps have created new standards and expectations for all digital media including the web. The result is websites are evolving to become more app-like in their rich functionality. I like to call it the ‘appification of the web’. Let’s deconstruct this notion further.


What Is an App?

Let’s start with the basics. Many people think of apps as a relatively new invention for smartphones and tablets, but apps are much older and expansive than that. Basically, an app is a piece of software designed to perform a task. This simple concept has been changing the world since the earliest days of computing. Office productivity, scientific modeling, and industrial design were some of the first fields to be impacted by apps.

Apps are everywhere today. They are on desktops, phones, watches, glasses, and even cars and offer rich, action-oriented user experiences across mobile and web platforms.


Why Apps Are Winning

There was a time when most companies didn’t have a website. Eventually users came to expect companies would have a website and those which did not fell behind. The earliest websites were a one-way street. Today, most websites have not moved significantly beyond a place to display information that can be consumed with little user interaction or input.

That same story is playing out again in mobile apps, users are expecting companies to have a mobile app. However, apps are different; they engage users and perform tasks that make our lives easier. In fact, many people check for a mobile app before going to a website. The next step in this evolution is the expectation that apps on the web will deliver the same quality experience as apps on mobile.


The Best Websites Are Actually Apps

25 years after the web was created and 23 years after the first website, pictured below, the web is undergoing an evolution towards sites that are actually web apps, or more app-like. Fast-forward to 2014 and Google Maps, with its ability to dynamically interact with a user and their location, is a great example of a web app.

World Wide Web first website

1991: The first website

Google Maps screenshot

2014: The Google Maps website is a web app

While HTML5 hasn’t delivered the cross platform app experience people were hoping for, it has helped bring about a revolution in web technologies that have dramatically changed the quality of the experience that can be delivered via the browser. Modern sites such as Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and Mint.com are also web apps that remember where users left off, update themselves, provide interactive controls beyond simple navigation, and can even interface with local resources such as GPS location and persistent storage, to provide far more functionality than a traditional website.


The “Appification” of the Web: Action Items for Companies

Apps and websites are converging in terms of their architecture and desired end-user experience. Companies need to plan for this multi-screen world where the web is “appified’, or else risk scrambling to catch up. This doesn’t just mean investing resources in jazzing up their website. Instead, it is necessary to understand what actions are best suited to which device and platform, i.e desktop or mobile, and make it as easy as possible for users to perform those actions. For example, people use their Uber mobile app to find a cab, but likely leave feedback on the web. To do this successfully companies will need to:

  • Create a seamless experience between their web app and the mobile app. This is not just colors and branding, but interfaces with similar menus and controls.

  • Encourage interaction between the web and mobile by sharing a user’s ongoing work, preferences, and settings across the two platforms. A recent study states that 40% of adults switch between devices, often web and mobile, to complete a single task.

  • Create flows which guide users from one platform to the other based on where they will best be able to complete their actions. This requires the ability to track and analyze users actions.

Ultimately, as the mobile and web platforms mature, the apps that will distinguish themselves will be the ones that can leverage the strengths of all these platforms and still create a unified experience for their end users.



On the 25th birthday of the web, it’s timely that the web is undergoing further maturation towards “appification”. This is good news for users and companies alike because it means enhanced interaction and better relationships between content providers and content consumers. The “appification” of the web also benefits app marketers and developers, who are in a better position to collect contextual data, understand their users’ behaviors, and deliver to them personalized user experiences. The web has come a long way, and we look forward to more websites that behave and act like native apps.