The post-browser era of the web is coming

At yesterday's Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, Apple announced its annual updates to iOS, OS X, and the new watchOS. As usual, the Apple rumor blogs correctly predicted most of the important announcements weeks ago, but one important piece of news only leaked a few hours before the keynote: the launch of a new application called "News". Apple's News app press release noted: "News provides beautiful content from the world's greatest sources, personalized for you".

Apple basically cloned Flipboard to create News. Flipboard was once Apple's "App of the Year" in 2010, and it remains one of the most popular reading applications on iOS. This isn't the first time Apple has chosen to compete with its ecosystem of app developers. There is even a term for it, called "Sherlocking".

But forget about Apple's impact on Flipboard for a minute. The release of the News app signifies a more important shift in the evolution of the web, the web content management industry, and the publishing industry.

Impact on content management platforms

Why is Apple's News app a big deal for content management platforms? When you can read all the news you are interested in in News, you no longer have to visit websites for it. It's a big deal because there are half a billion active iOS devices and Apple will ship its News app to every single one of them. It will accelerate the fact that websites are becoming less relevant as an end-point destination.

Some of the other new iOS 9 features will add fuel to the fire. For example, Apple's search service Spotlight will also get an upgrade, allowing third-party services to work directly with Apple's search feature. Spotlight can now "deep link" to content inside of a website or application, further eliminating website or applications as end-points. You could search for a restaurant in Yelp directly from your home screen, and go straight to Yelp's result page without having to open the Yelp website or application. Add to that the Apple Watch which doesn't even ship with a web browser, and it's clear that Apple is about to accelerate the post-browser era of the web.

The secret to the News app is the new Apple News Format; rumored to be a RSS-like data feed with support for additional design elements like images, videos, custom fonts, and more. Apple uses these feeds to aggregate content from different news sources, uses machine learning to match the best content to a given user, and provides a clean, consistent look and feel for articles coming from the various news sources. That is the long way of saying that Apple decides what the best content is for you, and what the best format is to deliver it in. It is a profound change, but for most people this will actually be a superior user experience.

The release of Apple News is further proof that data-driven experiences will be the norm and of what I have been calling The Big Reverse of the Web. The fact that for the web to reach its full potential, it will go through a massive re-architecture from a pull-based architecture to a push-based architecture. After the Big Reverse of the Web is complete, content will find you, rather than you having to find content. Apple's News and Flipboard are examples of what such push-based experiences look like; they "push" relevant and interesting content to you rather than you having to "pull" the news from multiple sources yourself.

When content is "pushed" to you by smart aggregators, using a regular web browser doesn't make much sense. You benefit from a different kind of browser for the web. For content management platforms, it redefines the browser and websites as end-points; de-emphasizing the role of presentation while increasing the importance of structured content and metadata. Given Apple's massive install base, the launch of its News app will further accelerate the post-browser era of the web.

I don't know about your content management platform, but Drupal is ready for it. It was designed for a content-first mentality while many competitive content management systems continue to rely on a dated page-centric content model. It was also designed to be a content repository capable of outputting content in multiple formats to multiple end-points.

Impact on publishing industry

Forget the impact on Flipboard or on content management platforms, the impact on the publishing world will even be more significant. The risk for publishers is that they are being disintermediated as the distribution channel and that their brands become less useful. It marks a powerful transformation that could de-materialize and de-monetize much of the current web and publishing industry.

Because of Apple's massive installed base, Apple will now own a large part of the distribution channel and it will have an outsized influence on what hundreds of millions of users will read. If we've learned one thing in the short history of the Internet, it is that jumping over middlemen is a well-known recipe for success.

This doesn't mean that online news media have lost. Maybe it can actually save them? Apple could provide publishers large and small with an immense distribution channel by giving them the ability to reach every iOS user. Apple isn't alone with this vision, as Facebook recently rolled out an experiment with select publishers like Buzzfeed and the New York Times called Instant Articles.

In a "push economy" where a publisher's brand is devalued and news is selected by smart aggregators, the best content could win; not just the content that is associated with the most well-known publishing brands with the biggest marketing budgets. Publishers will be incentivized to create more high-quality content -- content that is highly customized to different target audiences, rather than generic content that appeals to large groups of people. Success will likely rely on Apple's ability to use data to match the right content to each user.

Conclusion

This isn't necessarily bad. In my opinion, the web isn't dead, it's just getting started. We're well into the post-PC era, and now Apple is helping to move consumers beyond the browser. It's hard to not be cautiously optimistic about the long-term implications of these developments.

Comments

James Goin (not verified):

An interesting announcement. Do you believe there will still be a time and place for carefully-curated content and seekers of said curated content? Do you think these types of sites and experiences will turn into simply another "channel" that can be subscribed to in the post-browser future?

COD (not verified):

So it's a glorified RSS reader with proprietary hooks to try to lock in user and publishers to the platform? That sounds like a great thing for web. Seriously, I'd expect the founder of an important open source project like Drupal to be a little more critical here, and not buy into the Apple hype.

I also think it's a little naive to believe that the best content will win in a push model. If Apple controls the channel, the content that is best for Apple's bottom line will win. It may not matter to Drupal the CMS what the end points for content look like, but it should matter to all of us as users.

Dries:

As I wrote, I'm cautiously optimistic about this development. I've certainly expressed concerns -- not just in this blog post but also in my DrupalCon presentations. Go check them out!

For the Open Web to win, we must build websites and applications that match or exceed the user experience of Google, Apple, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. As much as I'd love a 100% Open Web to win, I don't think we can successfully fight them, at least not in the short term. We'll have to collaborate with them, while we evangelize and advance the Open Web at the same time. More thoughts in https://dri.es/comment/110731#comment-110731.

Color me naive, but it is not necessarily all doom and gloom. Google Search already decides what content is best for you, and I'd argue that Google has been a tremendous force for the web, and mostly positive.

At least we're openly talking about these developments, and we're actively trying to figure out how Drupal and Open Source can influence the future of the web for the betterment of everyone. Not every Open Source project seems to be concerned about that.

Matt Ackley (not verified):

As someone who works with thousands of online publishers to monetize their traffic I see the trend of big business ring fencing Internet traffic to be quite dangerous to the ecosystem. When you open an article on the Facebook app it opens within Facebook's app which is cookieless and unable to be effectively monetized by publishers ... For many pubs that is 25-50% of their traffic. Now another slice of their traffic (or what would have been) will be carved out by News ... I understand it is a superior user experience, but what do you think of the large internet companies essentially ring fencing traffic that normally would flow throughout the web?

Dries:

I think a lot of people are happy to pay for great content. I love reading but I don't want to pay a monthly subscription to a newspaper; they provide a bundle of articles, the vast majority I'm not interested in in reading. I believe the problem is the outdated "all or nothing" subscription model and the user experience of reading newspapers.

I'd be happy to pay for a stream of articles coming from different sources that are all interesting. I'd be happy to pay Flipboard. Similarly, I'm not likely to pay a subscription to get access to a daily music album, but I'm happy to pay for Pandora or Spotify (and I actually pay for both).

Take a look at https://medium.com/on-blendle/blendle-a-radical-experiment-with-micropa… (hat tip: Larry Garfield).

Jacob (not verified):

I agree as a consumer but the way the market is structured there is no way to earn a living wage now on Spotify and buying records is dead.

I'm not advocating a return to the past, but the future is somewhat bleak.

With written content I feel similarly but journalists are already pretty beaten up as a profession. I see little future in this career. But in the past, you could appeal to a niche. When there are only 5 customers (ap, Apple, Google, FB, etc) it will naturally push fringe viewpoints and under funded players out. That's what monopolies do.

Also, I think Spotify is a poor analogy because while they have a radio mode which is cultivated, by and large it is simply a marketplace or more accurately an mp3 hosting service / database, not a "push" play. (note: echo nest acquisition is clearly there to change that).

Open ecosystems like android are a lot more attractive because of this. Google has thus far not been very predatory or exclusive. The latter being the most important.

Dries:

Apple just announced that it will share 71.5% of Apple Music revenue with music rights owners in US, and an average around 73% outside of the US. That is largely in line with the payments by other music streaming services. The big difference is that unlike Spotify and Pandora, Apple Music won't have an unlimited free subscription. This could be better for the artists as the free version is ad-supported and probably doesn't generate much profit? Will be interesting to watch ...

Paul Thornton (not verified):

Shades of Orwell's 1984? Personally I would be very much against an entity/company deciding what I should or should not see. This is, in fact a pure form of censorship. How would they know that today I want content about France, and tomorrow content about Japan? User experience my *ss.

Dries:

It is not censorship, but curation.

Both the censor and the curator have access to a lot of information and decide what information to be shared and what information to keep private. In most cases the curator and the censor think they are doing the morally or ethically right thing. The difference is that censorship is about the suppression of information and curation is about finding the signal in the noise.

Curation is about choosing, organizing and presenting the best information. Every news publication, including this blog, is curating. Journalists and bloggers make conscious choices about what information to present and what information to withhold. Publishers select, organize, and present information based on what they think is most interesting to their readership, based on their ethics and biases, or simply based how they prefer to tell the story.

Apple News is not censorship because Apple is not saying: "This is it, Paul. The only news you are allowed to access is this.". Apple allows you to find and consume information using other applications. Apple News presents you the syndicated articles "as is" and encourages you to visit the news source's website and explore.

Curation is good. Censorship is bad. While there can be a fine line at times, it's very clear that Apple News is curation.

Jacob Singh (not verified):

Nice insights. I agree that convenience is key, and cultivation brings that.

I don't share any of your (somewhat) rosy outlook though... there is no clear plus point for society, arts, culture, politics or independent thought IMO. But regardless of the outcome, your analysis is spot on.

The larger question is not what content will get curated, but who will produce the content?

I have several musician friends who have retired from professionally playing since Spotify and friends gutted what was left of an income for middle class musicians.

Who will write quality, independent viewpoints and why? Or will Apple just be a spout for AFP and AP corporate-moderated drivel? Then, will they cut them out and start producing their own? That's quite terrifying isn't it?

Bernd (not verified):

Hi Dries,

In my eyes changing the web delivery paradigm from pull to push would bring along serious "political" implications. Today the web is about democracy, the users "vote" what they like best. A push web might change this into a more or less totalitarian system. As I believe in democracy, I don't think this should happen. Being a seasoned IT guy myself, I can still remember how AOL and T-Online competed here in Germany, who would succeed in locking the users to their respective proprietary platform. That was about 15 years ago, when the web was still in its nursing phase. Both failed and a (relatively) open web evolved. Let's stand up and protect it, whenever some big guy tries to take it over!

Just my 0.02 €.

Regards,
Bernd

Dries:

Moving from a "pull"-paradigm to a "push"-paradigm itself doesn't lead to a totalitarian system. For example, newspapers are a form of smart aggregators that "push" curated information to its readers -- readers no longer have to "pull" the news from different sources themselves.

What could lead to totalitarianism is a handful of platform companies (e.g. Google, Facebook, Apple, LinkedIn, etc) becoming the front-end for most of the web. The problem of monopolies is huge as there are many ways in which dominant businesses can harm us. While we can credit these organizations for helping to bring millions of users to the web, often to the betterment of these users, we risk losing the "open web" and its ideals. Needless to say, that could be a big problem.

I believe one of the biggest reasons why these platform businesses became so dominant is their superior user experience. To compete with them, we must build websites and applications that match or exceed the user experience of Facebook, Apple, Google, etc. Exploring architectural changes to deliver better user experiences is an important part of that; figuring out how organizations, large and small, can embrace the push-web could be a positive.

ceaucari (not verified):

It's a fact that technology will evolve and in any case a better user experience wins.

The fact that content can be pushed to you at the right time in the right place creates no doubt a better user experience to many users in many cases than having to go search for it so I celebrate that some thought is been given to this and how Drupal can be relevant in this model.

It's also true that the amount of content being generated these days are overwhelming and there is a need for it to be curated and we are already doing that with pretty much any tool we use to follow people, read news and find services.

There is also a wide universe of people consuming information with different needs, even the same user at certain point may be looking to explore or research, having access to a broad range of sources, and at some other point in time may be on the need for the fastest, easiest way to get a solution, watch the paradox of choice.

It certainly is of great importance to defend our liberty to choose what we consume, or what is pushed to us, but I don't think the way to secure that freedom is fighting algorithms or companies that develop them but in making sure we have other options to pick from when we want to be exposed to a bigger diversity either by switching off some filters on the same tool or by using other tools (like google?) to dive into the ocean of information.

So making Drupal play well in this "push" game is actually a step towards the right direction to protect diversity.

Dries:

Great article on Apple expanding its "deep linking" capabilities, something I touched upon in this blog post: https://medium.com/ios-os-x-development/deep-linking-search-in-ios-9-wi…. The linking of (mobile) apps is a big deal because it enables a lot of the same interaction and discovery that the "old web" did. When apps can link to each other, the way we link web pages, that is going to disintermediate the browser.

Alper Burat (not verified):

Browsers will be the command prompt window of the Internet.

Fred (not verified):

Nice thinking about the next step of the internet, but for me a bit of too much wishful thinking that maybe suits Apple as the new man in the middle for everything in a post-browser internet. I think the importance off apps will be reduced soon and the webbrowser in which you can handle 95% of all you might want to do on the internet will return and only special applications will need a specialized app. Ever tried WebRTC (, i.e. https://appear.in ) in stead of Skype? Google will need the browser for while (or succeed in making the browser the standard OS) and Mozilla will do everything to prevent the play- and app-stores and propriety RSS-protocols an the like will dominate the web. Deep-linking of apps is no new feature, btw!

Walt French (not verified):

It's unsurprising that Apple introduces a service that appears to meet ITS needs while others worry about a shift of control and constricted channels to news.

What *IS* surprising is that people see two of the most customer-focused tech companies on the planet undertake similar moves, and don't wonder what similar needs they saw going unmet.

Especially over mobile, with its 70 mSec ping times and sometimes iffy download speeds, conventional web pages are often a disaster. What was it, over 5 years ago Google thoughtfully let us know how quickly people abandon pages that don't load quickly, yet to my eye, your typical news site is even MORE bloated with graphic ads, trackers, links that are useless and then often bloated html from dysfunctional formatting systems and then javascript that further delays pages while adding NO value to the content.

There are some technical solutions — web assembly, bring it on! — and there are some more difficult tradeoffs around the business needs to know your customer. Facebook & Apple are offering publishers MORE reach than they have now, not so much by curation, aggregation and portal-like lock-ins, as they are doing so by extending the web from what worked fine two decades ago, but has been overloaded with cruft.

We still have the NYT.Com website, and twitter + friends emails to let us know of valuable stories. What the new services are adding is the ability to form your own favorite sources without spending a half hour clicking fruitlessly on bookmarks or otherwise scanning a dozen or two favored sites.

I doubt I'll use the Apple service much; I have a well-honed approach. But then again, I *DID* drop RSS pretty quickly (when NetNewsWire worked a lot less well based on Google's changes) in favor of twitter feeds that highlighted my favorite sources. People who HAVEN'T gotten a satisfactory approach going are much more likely to try, and maybe stick with, these new venues. And the news sources will, for the most part, have extended, not constricted reach to people other than myself.