Countering The App-Based Web

Far too little do I visit websites, these days. I mostly stay within the comfortable uniform walls of Google Reader, clicking j or k to navigate from one item to the next, in a carefully mixed personal newsstream. Which means webdesign is usually lost on me. Not only that, but with very few exceptions, I prefer the clinical design which Google Reader homogenates everything into. I can even favourite, share and otherwise discuss or manipulate individual news items, right then and there. It’s a great way to browse the web.

So what of webdesign in five years? Will it exist as it does today, or will it drown in an app based web which wraps every content item into viewer into viewer, turtles all the way down?


If more and more websites are read through these web-goggles, here’s a few wild guesses as to what it’ll all mean:

  • Likely, RSS feeds will get its content designed, things such as ads, logos and copyright notices included in each item. Maybe even even colors and font sizes will be tweaked
  • Websites will primarily serve to advertise their RSS feed, and subscribing will be sponsored by Amazon 1-Click
  • Way more RSS feeds will become excerpt-only
  • Blog comments will continue their death spiral and their move towards social media

The focus of this speculation is whether traditional webdesign will have a place in the future, so please omit web-app websites like Gmail or Google Docs from these criteria.

Steve & Rupert, Sitting In A Tree

Apples vision is that of an app-based web. Large media companies that can afford iOS apps, will get their content wrapped in a distributable container. They can put a price tag or even a paywall on these apps and the content is usually presented in a fashion that is more “delicious” than “just a website”. Which when put this way, appeals to control freaks like Rupert Murdoch. The situation is that small individual websites like this one, maybe even yours, may be slowly dying as an editorially tailored, individual news stream. It’s easy to worry that in the future, all a website will be is a content teaser and a large subscribe button. Or a suggestion in an app-based feed-reader, where once subscribed, all visual distinction will be exorcised. Like the web killed newspapers and iTunes killed the album, so Google Reader killed the blog. This house is clear.


I don’t think the app-based web is the future of the internet. Wrapping your web-accessible content into something that has to pass through the App Store to end users is a fad, inspired by the joy it is to use a well-designed iPhone app. It’s also artificial respiration for Ruperts vision of control. In my mind, it’s only a matter of time before executives and recent iPhone switchers stop yelling “we need an iPhone app” — wait, maybe not — but it is only a matter of time before end users will avoid these non-apps like the plague. What will survive the age of enlightenment, are feed-readers, even ones that take your content and present it in book-like, newspaper-like or even magazine-like fashion. Ultra-personalized, tactile, Minority Report-esque, flying, folding, flipping rotating throbbing super feed readers.

The Consequence For Webdesign

I like a pretty weblog. I spend a profuse amount of time designing my own websites, not to mention client sites. It’s a joy to look at a content-well that’s well-crafted and put-together. My worry is that the designed website is going the way of the dodo, in favor of something that has to be “installed”.

At the same time, I like the idea of the personal news-stream. Using my Google Reader and staying inside it, I’m instrumental in making this change happen. I also don’t bookmark websites anymore, or type in web-addresses. If I visit a website, it’ll be the odd situation when I step out of my reader, or visit a link you sent me. As much as I love it, I smell death on your lovingly crafted blog.

In one future that is forming, we search, and we use web-apps that have prominent app-like bookmarks. We read sock-off-knocking personal news-streams, and in this future, the RSS standard has been elaborated upon in a fashion that allows a modicum of interactivity and customization. It’s a future where a feedreader called “Duper Reader” combines RSS with HTML5, CSS, Javascript and extensions, and some of your design will survive its stripping and aggregation powers.

The Earth-Two Personal Website, Where URLs Survived The Great Purge

In another future, we still do type in web-addresses. In this one, the blog you spent time designing has a shot, and it doesn’t involve you excerpting your feeds. In this future, your well-written blog which features real content and not “song of the day” or “latest lol-cat”, will be visited outside of feed-readers. These websites work as they do today: users might star or favourite an item in your reader and then actually visit the website to discuss it with the author.

Depending on which future you believe in, what you want to do is ask yourself: do I care enough about my webdesign, that I want to give people reason to leave their feedreaders?

If the answer is no, then do the following:

  • Love the reader. Screw your design. Use a service that makes it incredibly fast to post, like Tumbleblog, Posterous or Buzz.
  • Make sure your RSS feed icon is large and super well advertised on your website.
  • You absolutely must provide a full-text feed.
  • If you want to monetize, put … gasp … ads in your RSS feed items.

If you can answer yes, then do the following:

  • Write well.
  • Provide means to share your columns.
  • Put effort in your webdesign and set yourself the goal of out-designing the feed reader: your design has to be at least as easy and preferably more comfortable to read than an RSS item. Trust me that this is no trivial task. It involves font sizes, paragraph styles, column widths, and lack of text shadows.
  • Find an app-based website you like. NY Times or Jamie Olivers iPhone apps, perhaps. Study them. Then grow the skills it requires to translate these reading paradigms to your website. I’ve seen what you can do in HTML5 and JavaScript. Leverage this to make a delicious, quick-loading, tactile reading experience, where the page jogs that are usually associated with loading webpages are minimal.

I sense it in the water; a purge is coming. If you can manage to build a great website before then, your website will survive feed-reader obscurity. If you cannot, embrace the reader.

9 thoughts on “Countering The App-Based Web”

  1. I think webdesign is dying, and I’ve written about it here: Countering The App-Based Web:

  2. Wise words RT @noscope: I think webdesign is dying, and I’ve written about it here: Countering The App-Based Web:

  3. Nicole says:

    I’m not so sure about this. I agree (I hope!) that the app-per-website trend will die eventually, but I just haven’t seen evidence that RSS feeders will take center stage thereafter. As a twenty-something American, the vast majority of people I know are technophiles with semi-permanent Internet connections on their person (i.e. if not a smartphone, then at least an iPod Touch), yet those that use RSS feeds to subscribe to web content are in the very small minority. I get blank stares when I mention Google Reader and this is from people in my own demographic. I’m still trying to get my parents to understand the usefulness of tabs in a browser. I know some kind of change is inevitable, but, unless RSS becomes vastly simpler and more usable for the average person, I just can’t see it taking over.

  4. Joen says:

    You make some extremely good points.

    However, any of those you mention that give blank stares when you say “RSS”, do they visit blogs? My assumption is they visit facebook, gmail, hotmail, yahoo mail, and the website for their local newspaper. And they search.

    The use case involving typing in the name of a blog you know and then reading it on its own terms, that’s what I think is a culture that’s changing. And I think unless it’s a real famous blog, like, say, chances are people won’t leave the confines of their feedreader. Is what I’m guessing.

    1. Nicole says:


      In some cases they do regularly visit a few websites and blogs. My boyfriend actually follows several, but he prefers to do so using the Live Bookmarks feature in Firefox. He can see with the click of a button if a website has updated, but he’s taken to the actual website to read the content–not to a feed reader.

      Others get notifications of updates through Twitter or Tumblr or LiveJournal or Facebook or any number of ways. Google Reader is just not high among them; in fact, I do sometimes wonder how seriously Google Reader gets used by the average population.

  5. I think Google Reader will kill blogs in a way completely different from the way iTunes killed records. People still *make* music, but they do it in a different format. Lots of musicians are only doing electronic sales.

    I think Google Reader will stop blogging entirely. No one cares about what someone has to say. In the early 2000s (and probably way before then), there was a huge push by corporations to provide a “face” for their companies in the form of something human. I think blogs are going the other way: people care less about what an individual has to say (unless they’re speaking in 140-character sentences), and more about what entities produce.

    RSS will destroy blogs. By decreasing visits to the actual site, very many blogs could disappear.

    And in response to the above comments: I think blogs’ (those that survive) main traffic will come from social networks. A small percentage of internet users read things in RSS readers, but everyone and their dog is on Facebook.

    1. Joen says:

      I think blogs are going the other way: people care less about what an individual has to say (unless they’re speaking in 140-character sentences), and more about what entities produce.

      Interesting. I definitely think we’ll see fewer (larger / better) blogs, but I think we’ll still see non-micro-blogs. Their contents will just be read (and commented / liked upon) in reader.

  6. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the *personal website* will die. Already, people are putting Twitter URLs on business cards.

  7. And of course, fully integrated with Facebook, if Mark Zukerberg has his way.

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