Does the World Wide Web Really Need Websites?

Government transparency and engagement efforts often fall short, and the growing wave of mobility has some IT leaders rethinking how they deliver content online.

by / July 25, 2014

No one cares what kind of vehicle UPS uses to deliver packages, and no one cares what kind of knife a chef uses to make their dinner. People care about results -- about getting what they want. If the package arrives on time and the meal is delicious, then most are content to allow the minutiae of how it all happened to stay a mystery.

This effect is especially prominent in the public’s dealings with government. People don’t care if it’s a website, a mobile app or a messenger on foot that gets the job done – they just want to get the information they need as quickly and conveniently as possible, and then move on. Many state and local governments have revamped their websites in recent years, embracing responsive design and streamlined user interfaces, all in accordance with the realization that today’s Web users are increasingly mobile. But mobile-first could eventually mean doing away with websites altogether.

An increasingly mobile user base is changing what today's Web looks like, and there is a trend toward even greater mobile usage, as outlined by a May 2014 report by Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers that showed mobile data traffic is up 81 percent year-over-year. The report also states that only 30 percent of the world’s 5.2 billion mobile users have smartphones, leaving room for huge growth as mobile devices become increasingly more affordable. Additionally, Google recently bought satellite operator Skybox Imaging for $500 million with the aim of not only enhancing Google Earth, but also for bringing online more people who live in developing nations.

The potential impact of mobile’s role in the future Web is massive. If the impact is big enough, one result could be that the Web protocols of today could disappear in favor of an online environment shaped by smartly interconnected apps.

Making inroads in that arena is Quixey, a five-year-old startup that many are calling "the Google of mobile app search." And the company just doubled down on its investment in the future of mobile apps, moving its 130 employees to a 17,500 sq. ft. office in Mountain View, Calif. Quixey’s directive is finding better ways to index mobile apps so users can search by what they want to do, rather than requiring users to know the name of the app they’re looking for. The idea is to lead users to more useful search results that may have otherwise gone overlooked.

For example, a Quixey search for "report potholes Seattle" returns, "Find It, Fix It," the city of Seattle’s reporting app, as the first result. The same search in the Google Play store returns hundreds of apps that have the word "Seattle" or "pothole" in the title, but the app the city designed specifically for the purpose of reporting potholes is nowhere to be found. And that’s why leaders at Quixey say today’s app environment is broken, and are leading a mobile trend that has some government leaders rethinking their entire approach to information delivery.

Quixey is onto something, says IT Analyst Rob Enderle -- when people use their phones to do things, they don’t care which app brings them the data or functionality they want, they just want it. It’s the same reason that digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana have captured the public’s attention. Smartphones and tablets are largely responsible for making technology a mainstream interest because they are so easy to use, and there are few things easier than simply voicing a command. Logically centralizing functionality is a natural progression in user interface design.

And the discussion around this concept is growing. In late June, speakers at Google’s annual I/O conference indicated a need for more integration in app functionality. “They’re talking about some similar stuff in terms of linking apps more strongly and creating more familiar relationships between apps,” Enderle said. “It does look like Google is going that same way, which suggests we’ve got a trend.”

Many states and cities, like Riverside, Calif., are calling themselves “mobile-first,” which means that every new digital project starts with considering the expanding mobile landscape.

“We’re finding that there are more and more mobile users visiting our website, which tells me that those people could also be using apps instead,” said Lea Deesing, Riverside’s chief innovation officer. “We’re now finding that 39 percent of the people who visit our site are visiting from mobile devices.”

Riverside’s website averages about 47,000 hits each day, and the number of mobile users goes up every time officials check the stats, Deesing said. “Mobile is the future,” she added. “I don’t think we’ll have desktops in five years. We’ll have portable devices in offices and taking those with us on the road; we’ll be working everywhere.”

And in Davis, Calif., Chief Innovation Officer Rob White said he sees the value in Quixey simply because apps are easier to use than websites. The future of government, he said, could be one without websites.

“Most government apps are nothing more than information push. Very few of them do anything useful,” White said. “For most of city services, there’s no app related to it – you’ve got to go to the webpage."

He pointed to city council meetings, a great example for local government, or board meetings for counties -- these are the places, he said, where governments constantly want to see its citizenry engage. "We push all this stuff into the website where nobody can find it, nobody uses it," White added, "whereas if I had a single-minded app, and I have a way for people to find that that’s effective, I think that will become the norm and webpages [will] start to be abandoned.”

One of the problems with many transparency efforts is that they don’t work. Burying content 10 clicks deep on a website that most people don’t know about does very little of anything, let alone improve transparency, White said.

“It’s the appearance of transparency,” he said. “We as government agents can say we’re working toward transparency, but it really hasn’t achieved the end-point that I think people are looking for.”

When recently asked what they would change about government, two software developers from Colorado each responded independently that they wished government would shift toward a “push system” of information, one in which they could elect to receive information about the things they cared about, without needing to set aside time to traverse websites.

"I think a lot of society right now is just used to that – people get their news that way, people get a lot of things that way,” said Kelly Shuster, Colorado-based software developer.

The city of Davis is now overhauling its website, but White said if he had given mobile more consideration six months ago, they may have instead put the money toward creating mobile apps for the city’s most popular services and providing a utilitarian website.

“If the whole point of having websites and these electronic means to interact with your government agencies is all about transparency and community engagement, then wouldn’t you want to bring the tool that gives the best outcomes to the table?” White said. “And we all know that websites don’t do that. They’re unwieldy at best.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

Platforms & Programs