The Mobile Web: Echoes of Web 1.0?

This past Sunday’s New York Times triggered a flashback for me with a story (in the Styles section, no less) titled: The iPhone Gold Rush. I was around for the first Internet boom and keep seeing parallels between the current mobile web feeding frenzy and what happened back in the late ’90’s. A couple of examples (and I’d love to hear more from anyone out there):

  • Apps = Websites. In Web 1.0, the website was the unit of currency; today it’s iPhone apps. Tech-savvy folks build them, early adopters share and collect them, and businesses pop up to help both groups play their role more effectively.
  • Build / Ship Friction Falls. The first days of the Web was a hand-coder’s world, with virtually no packaged software or developer toolkits available for what was then a tiny market. As the economic potential of the market became apparent, new services and software players emerged with the net effect of driving barriers to entry toward zero.
  • Distribution Friction Rises. As the number of / diversity of available websites exploded, progressive layers of discovery tools emerged and failed, only to be replaced by the next-most scalable solution: from volunteer / amateur directories (e.g., DMOZ) to commercial directories (e.g., Yahoo) to search (e.g., AltaVista, Google), to ??.
  • Brands Rush In. In the late ’90s it suddenly dawned on a broad swath of incumbent brands (retailers, manufacturers, etc.) that their customers were looking for them online. To anyone in the Web application development business (as I was at the time), customers were everywhere and billing rates were whatever the market could bear. I haven’t yet seen the flood of brands hit the iPhone, but early adopters are there and I’ll be very surprised if the same cycle doesn’t play out here.
  • Customer Acquisition is The Hard Part. Google is a great business precisely because the Web is such a sprawling mess. There are too many websites chasing the same customers’ attention for anyone to decisively “win” online, so the business that controls the firehose of customer demand can extract maximum rents for pointing it in a specific direction.

    Right now the App Store holds that slot for the mobile Web, but Apple is a deeply conflicted party (Google’s bright line separation between discovery – search – and promotion – ads – is at the heart of their continued dominance in Web search) and developer frustration at Apple’s many-headed role is growing daily.

The analogy isn’t perfect, and the line between mobile apps and websites will continue to blur (as it has in the PC software vs. web applications world), but it’s fascinating to observe the parallels and try to pick the vectors worth betting on. I’m particularly interested to see how things change when all the competing smartphone platforms + app stores (e.g., Android, BlackBerry, Palm, Symbian, WinMo) come on line and the smartphone device footprint expands meaningfully beyond iPhone. Bring it on!