Why The Web Wins
Is the Web dead? Hardly.
Nevertheless, some serious people, most notably Chris Anderson of Wired, are saying that it is. While the argument is intriguing, it is surely wrong and betrays a serious misunderstanding of what the web is and where the digital world is going.
Make no mistake, the web, conceived in a single month but embellished over two decades, not only survives, but thrives. In fact, it’s just getting started.
What The Web Is
I wrote about the difference between the Web and the Internet a while back, but here’s the short version: The Internet is a bundle of hardware and protocols that moves information around the world more efficiently than anything ever has before. The web, however, is software that lays on top of the Internet.
Tim Berners Lee created the basic architecture for the Web in November 1989, which consists of three components: HTTP, URL and HTML. The first two are mere formalities. To get an idea of what they do, think about a standard business contract which, in the preamble, designates the parties and the body of law under which the contract will function.
HTML, or the HyperText Markup Language, however, was a stroke of genius. It’s what makes the Web so special. There are two basic elements:
Markup Tags: These are what gives the web its universality. They work very much like the script in your school play. Just as scripts have little instructions in the text so that the actors will know to present the words (wryly) or (angrily), HTML tags instruct computers to <make this bold> or <make this blue>.
HyperText links: These give the web its connectivity. Berners-Lee originally created the web so that people could find important documents. He realized that any hierarchical system would fail because importance is all about context. Therefore, he made it easy for anyone with a web page to tell people to <go to www.digitaltonto.com> to find information that might interest them.
It was from these two basic ideas, universality and connectivity, that the Web gets its unique power. We can access documents no matter what machine or software we are using and those documents will point us to other documents no matter what machine they are on or what software were created on.
That’s what created the revolution. Any information we want is not only a few short hops away, but we can access that content with a standard browser. As I’ve explained before, the successful memes are the ones that get replicated. You can only pass on what you have access to.
The Non-Web Web
Of course, there is a lot on the Internet that’s not on the Web and that’s why Anderson and others think that the Web’s best days are behind it. The basic idea is captured by this graphic from the Wired article in which Anderson makes his case.
Take a quick glance and you quickly grasp the point. Before the web, most traffic was taken up by specific applications and file transfers (FTP stands for “file transfer protocol”). Throughout the 90’s, the web exploded, but has been declining as a percentage of total traffic for a decade.
However, a closer examination tells a different story. First of all, the graph shows percentage of traffic, so it would be a mistake to assume that web usage is actually on the decline. Secondly, the emerging bandwidth hog is video, most of which lies on web sites (unless there’s something I’m missing).
Yet the real argument that Anderson and others make is the rise of the “app.” In their narrative, the “walled garden” is returning in the form of Apple, Android and Facebook. The idea is that new innovations are becoming so popular that they don’t need the universality of the web.
Moreover, they make the argument that these new giants have a powerful profit motive to close themselves off. Anderson points out that once the railroad, telephone and electricity industries matured, they consolidated into closed systems ruled by industry giants.
A Very Weak Argument
I’m not sure what history book Anderson was reading, but he should seriously think about reading some others. I don’t see how the example of three mature infrastructure industries have anything to do with Web content. As I’ve noted before, media is fragmenting, not consolidating. It’s hard to see how the analogy is relevant.
Moreover, much of the new technology he cites, such as Twitter clients, i-Pad apps and RSS feeds are inseparable from the web. Who would use any of these things if they didn’t link to web sites through hypertext links?
Finally, many of his other examples that truly are separate from the web, such as Skype and World of Warcraft, reflect the new capabilities of increased bandwidth, not any shortcoming of the Web. People are using Skype to have private conversations they used to have by phone, online gaming is an improvement over consoles.
Just because some things don’t lend themselves to universality and sharing (and never did) doesn’t mean that the web or anything else is dying. Interestingly, both World of Warcraft and Skype use web sites for marketing, customer service and billing.
A Simple (but not simplistic) Explanation of What’s Really Going On
So far, we’ve just been quibbling with details. What’s truly at the heart of the Wired article’s argument is that the Web will not survive because of economic reality. In effect, that value is more easily generated by proprietary environments than with open ones.
I don’t see any reason why that’s necessarily true, nor does the Wired article provide one. A much more plausible explanation is given by Clayton Christensen, who originated the concept of disruptive innovation. In this view, there are two basic forms of organization:
Integrated Organization: This means that everything is proprietary and done in-house. Fully integrated organization is most effective when technology is new and doesn’t work very well, when it’s hard enough to get things to work even without fussing with third parties.
Modular Organization: Eventually, some people get really good at specific aspects of the job and they specialize. As technology matures, interfaces become standardized and different entities are able to work together more effectively. Openness and cooperation prevail.
As an example, take the auto industry. In there early days, integration was dominant. As they got better at building cars, companies started to specialize. Today, the big car companies mostly design and assemble cars. A network of hundreds of component companies actually manufactures them.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that the most exciting new technologies are on proprietary platforms. Standards take time to develop and great innovators like Steve Jobs can’t afford to wait for the rest of the industry to catch up in order to launch a breakthrough product.
Eventually though, it becomes more profitable to be modular, which is why Macs now use Intel, instead of their semi-proprietary PowerPC chips. That’s also why AOL went from bully to wimp in a few short years. Nobody has come up with an idea so big that it can out-compete the collective power of the marketplace in perpetuity.
The Next Web
Meanwhile, the web continues to evolve. HTML5 promises to make universal much of the functionality that was long the domain of proprietary technologies such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight.
Moreover, the semantic web is gathering steam and promises to create universal databases that link not just documents, but information itself. Just as it’s hard to imagine Internet apps that don’t link to web pages, it’s difficult to see how they will be able to cut themselves off from global ontologies and remain competitive for long.
But enough of the tech stuff. In the end, it all comes down to this: The web wins and will continue to win because it facilitates connections. That’s what makes information networks so powerful. Collective intelligence trumps individual ego every time, which is why as integrated technologies advance, they become more open and modular.
The Web is not dead. In fact, the best is yet to come.