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The Appian Way

December 2011

The cyber world seems a bit dull to me in at the moment, but that’s because it’s the calm before the storm.  We are beginning to see what I am convinced is the Next Big Thing, and the Last Big Things (Google et al) aren’t going to like it.  Nonetheless, it is good news for Oldies; computers will get easier and safer to use if I am right.

It’s all because Applications, or “Apps” as they have irritatingly become known, are fast usurping browsers as the way we use online services.  In case this sounds like gibberish (to all normal people, it will), I had better explain, because it’s likely to mean a huge change in the way we use the digital world.

The internet is just a network joining computers to each other, including yours and mine.  Information stored on a computer can be made available through that network; the most popular way to do this is by using a “browser”, like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.  A browser is just a window through which we look at the contents of a distant computer.  A website, in other words. 

However, we all know how easy it is to end up looking at the wrong site or the whole thing simply grinding to a halt.  The creators of websites are limited by what the browsers can handle, and they also have to make sure that their website works in each of the dozen or so alternatives to Internet Explorer – another limiting factor, and quite a tall order, actually.

So how much better for the companies concerned to have a direct link with you, through the internet, but on their own terms, and not bound by any rules that Microsoft or Google set?  That’s what an Application does.  You download a little software (an “App”) from the company, and when you want to see what they have to offer you use that, not the browser, to look.

Applications have received a huge boost by the tremendous growth in the use of touch screens to make your computer (or telephone) work.  The “tablet” computers (the flat ones that are about the size of a book, like iPads) all work that way, and it is perfect for Applications. 

Once set up, a little symbol sits on the screen; when you want to use whatever service it is (Amazon, rail timetables, BBC News, banking, booking theatre tickets, read a newspaper, weather, or whatever) you simply touch the symbol and off you go.  No risk of getting to the wrong website (you’re not looking at a website), or the browser freezing (you’re not using a browser).  In fact no third party influence at all, and nobody (like Google) watching what you are up to. It’s quicker, more secure and user-friendly, less prone to freezing and far more versatile.

Of course, there aren’t yet Applications (I really can’t bring myself to write “App”) for every organisation in the world, but most of the commercial sites that you already use have them.  There are hundreds of thousands already, and the number is growing all the time.

The limitation is that if you don’t have a tablet computer you probably won’t see the best of them, but those are becoming cheaper and cheaper, so keep your eyes peeled.

Why is this a worry for the likes of Google?  Because if we don’t use search engines in browsers, they don’t have a chance to show us adverts, and if they can’t show us adverts they can’t make money.   Companies are free to sell adverts within their own Applications, of course, but Google won’t see a penny.

The shift from using websites to Applications using the internet is gathering pace, and if it carries on, it will kill the profitability of search engines stone dead.  There is a distinct possibility, it seems to me, that we might one day look back on the last ten years as a curious period during which it was possible to make a gigantic fortune by providing a search engine, but went the way of the dodo.

I believe that the end is nigh for the way we currently use the internet, or fairly nigh at any rate.  The way forward does seem to be the Appian Way.