The danger of forsaking the web for apps

Apps are the future, right? You can abandon the web and just focus on a great app experience? Wrong. Here be dragons…

The web is dead! Apps are the new hotness! Look at Instagram – that went for years before it has a serious website. The web is history, it’s all about the apps!

That’s the refrain right now – amongst a section of the tech press, at least. The evidence seems to be mounting. Look at The Magazine, a Newsstand app from Marco Arment, the man behind Instapaper, an app that take stye web – and shoves it into an app for your reading pleasure! The Magazine is magazine publishing on the iPad done right – lightweight, quick to download and loaded with great content. It launched without a web site to speak of, because that’s history now, right?

That was the biggest mistake I’ve made with The Magazine to date.

Wait, what? 

On January 3, we published And Read All Over, a bold piece by Jamelle Bouie about racial access barriers in the tech press. We got a good number of comments from our readers, but nothing out of the ordinary.

To attract the best writers, including people who already have their own sites with strong readerships, we allow authors to republish their articles on their own sites (or anywhere else) just 30 days after we publish them. Bouie did exactly that, as many of our authors have. Only then did his article explode into the huge discussion I suspected may result from it — and The Magazine wasn’t a part of it.

Well, does that really matter? Sure, the conversation happened later – but your paying subscribers got first crack at the whip. Surely Arment doesn’t need to change things in a hurry?

So as Bouie’s piece was starting great discussions everywhere a month after we published it, I reprioritized web subscriptions from “Maybe I’ll do it in 6 months” to “I’m doing that right now.” And now, three weeks later, it’s done: you can now subscribe to The Magazine on the web, and you can sync subscriptions between the app and the website so you don’t need to pay twice.

Oh, OK maybe he does.

The Magazine is all about ideas and public discourse. By locking it away in an app, he cut off these ideas from anything that resembles a wider discourse. He hit the same problem that many newspaper sites have encountered once they erected a complete paywall – suddenly their writers became irrelevant in the wider discourse on the web. For some areas – politics, for example – that’s death. Linking between apps, joining up conversation around an idea, is all but impossible right now. Unless you’re content for the only discussion around your content to happen in app – as is much the case with Instagram – then you need the web.

The web is still the best system for interlinking and connecting thoughts from disparate people. The internet is the most powerful information distribution system invented by mankind – but the web is the best way of linking ideas. The power of the link – that simple piece of HTML markup that can put any two pages on the web adjacent to each other – is ignored at your peril.