A funny thing happened on the way to the mobile Web. Suddenly it's no longer about the Web browser.
Ironic, considering that the World Wide Web and the Web browser, created in 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee, are now eating desktop applications alive. The Web has become the vehicle for our consumption of everything from video clips to news to messages from friends and family.
Start-up Mint, a Web site that helps organize its customers' financial lives, is thriving. Microsoft, by contrast, is pulling the plug on Microsoft Money. Salesforce.com's Web-based business applications have gone from unorthodox to mainstream. Even Microsoft's ever mighty Office software franchise is being challenged by Google, Zoho and others hawking Web-based word processors and spreadsheets.
It has become easy to forget, however, that the Web and the Internet are two different things. A Web browser is just one of many ways the Internet can be put to use. And Apple has reminded us of that by tearing off a small piece of the very big universe that is the Internet and creating a very different set of rules than those that apply to the Web. And lately it is that parallel world, rather than the Web, that has begun to matter most to the future of the mobile Internet.
That's because Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs has done more than just slapping a Web browser on the iPhone — Apple has created a rich set of tools for delivering and monetizing content and services. Then it has paired them with rules that tear control away from the companies that have dominated the Web for so long.
Unlike the Web, for example, Apple has put the ability to charge small amounts of money at the center of its system for distributing iPhone applications, linking its App Store to the billing system in its iTunes digital media store. The result: Developers can charge as little as 99 cents for an application without the need to invest in a serious billing infrastructure.
This month's release of Apple's iPhone OS will take that idea further, allowing developers to charge for small slices of digital content, such as city maps for navigation applications, virtual weapons for online games and extra content for digital publishers. Suddenly, a lot of people whose content and services had been commoditized by the Web have a shot at getting back in business.
And Apple, of course, has placed itself at the center of this little world, approving which applications can be distributed through its App Store and how they can behave. Last August, Jobs said Apple was already doing $30 million a day in sales via the iPhone, with Apple pocketing a 30 per cent cut of each sale.
It is undoubtedly doing much more than that today. Apple now offers more than 50,000 applications for the iPhone and iPod touch through its App Store. In April, Apple announced iPhone users had downloaded 1 billion applications through the App Store.
So who loses? Some of those who won big on the Web, for starters. The App Store takes power away from portals such as Yahoo!, Google and MSN, which aggregate information from around the Web.
Suddenly, content owners had the tools to create interfaces more closely tailored to what they had to offer. The result: A newspaper publisher's iPhone application could offer a better way to read its articles than the Web — or even print.
Certainly the Web is a powerful force on the iPhone. Traffic from the mobile edition of Safari, Apple's Web browser, is one of the largest contributors of traffic to Web sites from mobile devices. Many more sites will create slimmed-down versions of themselves tailored to the iPhone's screen. Google, meanwhile, has turned its Gmail e-mail service into a showcase for the power and responsiveness of Web-based mobile applications.
The problem, however, isn't that the Web can't be made to work well on a mobile device. It's that Apple's mobile devices show that tailored, Internet-connected applications can be better than what the Web can do on its own — whether it's served up on a small screen or a big one.