Mobile apps could reshape the web

William Meisel/The Software Society
26 Mar 2014

The growth of the internet has historically been based on web sites, search engines that help locate sites of interest, and web browsers to display the search engine and web site content. The search engines that drive all this are free, supported (lucratively) by advertising revenues. The result is synergistic: Search makes content findable, encouraging the generation of more content.

This model is being challenged by the explosion in the use of mobile devices to access the web. Of course, an individual can use the web browser on a mobile device just as they would on a PC. But, increasingly, access to information and services on the web is through apps, software that works around browsers and web search engines to give direct answers or directly launch specific web sites without going through a classical web search. For example, if I ask Siri, “What’s the best Chinese restaurant nearby,” it will provide a list and then automatically display the restaurant with the best Yelp rating and ask if I “want to try that one.”

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, testified before a Senate Antitrust committee in September 2011: “Apple has launched an entirely new approach to search technology with Siri.” Google has responded by launching its own personal assistant (natural-language voice or text search initiated in some cases by saying, “OK Google”) without calling it a personal assistant. Samsung has the S-Voice personal assistant on Galaxy phones (based on language technology from Nuance Communications), and Nuance has its own Dragon Mobile Assistant, a free download. Microsoft is rumored to be developing a personal assistant named Cortana (based on a video-game character). Supposed leaked screenshots of an upcoming Blackberry OS release show an icon named “Intelligent Assistant.” Obviously, something fundamental is going on.

General personal assistants like these try to be your preferred entry to the web, and for good economic reasons. Schmidt also testified in 2011 that Siri was a threat to its advertising revenues. If the personal assistant substitutes for search engines as a starting point for most individuals, those apps can eventually generate most of the ad revenues driven by the web.

And there is no reason the same personal assistant can’t be available on your PC as well as across your mobile devices. The small size of mobile devices and the lack of a full keyboard encourage the use of speech to interact with these devices, and the difficulty of navigating through many screens on the small devices encourages the use of natural language (even when entered as text) to accomplish a task in fewer steps. There is the long-term possibility of the app model becoming the preferred approach at all entry points to the web.

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