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Indistinguishibility is the distinguishing characteristic as Google starts the big switch to mobile web – Reading the tea leaves at Google I/O

By David M. Smith | June 27, 2014 | 0 Comments

The headlines from Google I/O were mostly about Android everywhere and wearables (sorry just can’t get excited about watches unless they can replace my phone) but to me the real story is the resurrection of the mobile web. In case you hadn’t noticed, many have declared it dead and frankly even diehards like myself have been growing impatient waiting for our predictions to come true.

Finally Google is beginning to show real signs of returning to its roots (the web).

In fact, one of the sessions at I/O was subtitled “Reintroducing the mobile web”.
There have been some table stakes here. First, there is now a critical mass of 300m mobile chrome users (up from 30m last year). And Google has continued to push forward on performance issues; now claiming that 60fps is possible and advancing JavaScript performance etc.

There are three main reasons for why Google is poised to resurrect the mobile web. It is described by three Is: Influence, Innovation, and Indistinguishability

Influence

Google is really the only vendor or force that could do this. No other vendor has as much interest in and influence over the web. I wrote about this in Gartner Predicts in 2013. The success of Google’s primary business (search and advertising) correlates with the success of the web. The company has even stated that it does things ‘to make the web a better place’, which cynics like myself might scoff at initially, but after thinking it through, realize how true it really is.

Innovation

After much thought over the past few years about why the mobile web wasn’t following the patterns of the desktop, where the web won a long time ago, I came to the conclusion that innovation was a big part of it. During the Web 2.0 era (circa 2000-2007), this coincided with a period of intense stagnation on the desktop. The Windows monopoly was preoccupied with fixing Vista and security while the browser wars were long over. The innovation was happening on the web and the Ajax types of interaction were bringing the web closer and closer to the capabilities that could be provided in the native world where Windows was really the only game in time.

Now we are seeing innovation return to the web, with HTML5, Responsive Design, and Google continuing to push the envelope with what can be accomplished in a browser. And it is taking it to the next level by introducing its Material Design (think flat, responsive design with depth through shading and animations) concept in a way that brings it to both Android and the web (including the mobile web). It is delivered through the development models for the new Android L as well as for the web with Polymer. Polymer is built on web components and HTML5, is not tied to Chrome.

Indistinguishability

The third I is the most important. Indistinguishibility. Google is attempting to make the mobile web indistinguishable from the world of apps. This is not for the developer viewpoint but for the user/consumer view.

This is key, as mobile users today don’t like the mobile web. They have been conditioned by the rise of mobile to only want apps. There are many reasons for this – some of which are rooted in myths – but many are based on good reasons. Nonetheless it is a reality today. But users don’t know or care what tech is used. They think app is good, web is not.

The huge news regarding Material design is that apps and web will look the same. Increasingly, it will become more difficult to tell which is which. And Google is doing a lot more to blur that line. It is facilitating seamless moving from the web to apps by allowing apps to populate the browser’s recents. It is also indexing apps in Google search, facilitating access to apps from the web. All this is in addition to deep linking and other efforts already underway.

This could well be the beginning of an overall movement to use Google search for apps, which would be a big improvement over using app store searches.

We are also seeing the beginning of merger of Android and ChromeOS. This is being done through the Chrome browser and by bringing Android apps to ChromeOS (demoed and intent announced). So the future of ChromeOS will be running Android apps as well as web apps. More indisdinguishability.

Hold on though, there could be another I – Incompleteness

There is still much to come and to prove. First and foremost this needs to be shown to work across browsers – especially Safari on iOS. Also a key piece will be how they incorporate appstores into the mobile web. They could use the Google Chrome Web store, the Google Play store, or no store (relying instead on Google search). Indistinguishability would lead to leaning towards the no store model, but there are still needs for monetization. The so-called ‘discovery’ benefit of being in appstores is way overestimated IMHO.

Speaking of the Google Play store, its role is changing as well. It’s certainly not going away any time soon as the primary place to obtain Android apps. But it is gradually taking on a much bigger role.

It’s no secret that Android remains fragmented. Google didn’t talk about it except in an obscure reference to where it isn’t fragmented – The Google Play store.
According to Google, the Google Play services ships every 6 weeks and 93% of Android users are on latest release. They are beginning to issue security updates through Google Play.

The future of the Google Play store is not just an app store but an mechanism, place to ship APIs, and its most effective way to deal with fragmentation

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