Dec 5, 2013 · 4 minutes

Medium rearranged the furniture yesterday and in doing so changed the way we should look at the whole house.

It’s not just that founder and CEO Evan Williams has finally declared Medium to be a "platform not a publication" – an important distinction that was revealed in a correction note on a Fast Company article. And it’s not just the fancy new clothes that “Medium 1.0” comes dressed in, which include full-bleed cover photos and new layout options. It’s also that Medium now has more emphasis on user-curated “Collections,” such as one called “Human Parts.”

That shift puts Medium squarely in competition with Flipboard, a smartphone and tablet-focused reading app, which in March gave its users the ability to curate their own collections, which it calls “magazines.”

Medium's further additions of a “Top 100” leaderboard and a “Reading List” feed of suggested stories hammer home the message that “This is a place you come to read, and, please, stay a while.”

Those moves, too, bring Medium further into Flipboard territory. While the two platforms have some important differences – Flipboard focuses on content produced by magazines and online publishers; Medium focuses on user-generated content – they are both fighting for reader attention. When you’ve got time to sit down and read something, both Medium and Flipboard want to be first in line with their beautiful, design-minded reading experiences.

Once you accept those similarities, though, you have to turn your attention to the most important distinction between Medium and Flipboard, one that highlights a key contention about the future of the Internet and personal computing.

Flipboard is focused on native apps. It has a clunky Web version, but its primary products are tied innately to iOS and Android.

Medium, on the other hand, is Total Web. It has no apps. It is merely accessed within a Web browser and then, thanks to responsive design, adapts to the size of whatever device you happen to be viewing it on.

The “native vs Web” question has become a religious debate, and you can expect it to grow only louder and more impassioned as the world continues to shift towards a mobile-centric Internet experience. In a native-only scenario, our computing and consumption experiences would be mediated by app stores and operating systems. In a world in which the Web continues to play an important role, a browser could become the centerpiece of the consumer experience.

Last Friday, Semil Shah, a tech writer and investor, tweeted that the most amazing thing about Uber, Snapchat, “and a few other apps,” is they all don’t need the Web. (He later finessed his comment in an article for TechCrunch, noting they all still rely on Web technologies.) Keith Rabois – a former executive at PayPal, LinkedIn, and Square, and now an investor at Khosla Ventures – chimed in with a daring prediction: “nobody is going to be using the web soon.” Rabois had in the past argued that “the website as you know it” is “dead,” which is not quite the same thing as saying the Web is dead. Even if websites, like Medium, do go away, Web apps may live on.

Predictably, Rabois’ comment provoked a strong response, but the investor could at least point to Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that betting too heavily on HTML5 was Facebook’s biggest mistake. Native proponents argue that the user experience is just better than the mobile Web experience – more powerful, richer, faster, more fluid. In their minds, old will be new again – personal computing will be kind of like it was in the pre-Internet era, when the experience was dictated by desktop applications. Device and application would be irrevocably tied to one another.

Mobile Web proponents, however, says the HTML5 experience is getting better, and that soon you won’t be able to tell the difference between native and Web. If you’ve used Kik, which is a new kind of mobile Web browser disguised as a chat app, you’ll find that argument easy to believe. I found a similarly great user experience with Adsy, a mobile app creator that is also betting big on mobile Web. (Adsy is still in private beta, but it will be released in a matter of weeks.) Today, the New York Times released a Web app called Today’s Paper. It doesn’t yet support smartphone usage, which is crazy, but it provides further evidence of how HTML5 can produce a native app-like experience.

If the mobile Web wins, app stores would lose some of their kingmaking powers, and the user experience wouldn’t be interrupted by instals, download demands, and closed gardens. Updates would no longer be an issue. Clearly, that is the world that Medium – and, by extension, Evan Williams – wants to live in. Medium doesn't require a lot of computing power. It just serves up text and pictures. But it provides clear proof that mobile reading, at least, is just as pleasurable in the browser as it is in a native app.

Flipboard, with its various mobile apps and after-thought Web app, presents the alternative vision. Certainly, it presents a great reading experience – and, sure, some people will prefer to flip through publications and stories, rather than scroll down them, as Medium suggests. But is a vision that involves a lot of fences to hop over and the twin sacrifices of unity and simplicity.

So if you’re looking for a contest to watch as the “native vs Web” debate ramps up, keep your eyes on these two. Are you a Flipboard or a Medium?

[Image via Medium]