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The Web’s Big Future

2011 June 15
the web is NOT dead

Last September, Chris Anderson of Wired magazine proclaimed that The Web Is Dead.  Ten months later, events have shown that he couldn’t have been more wrong.

That’s not because the Web is still alive and kicking.  To be fair, Mr. Anderson never argued that it would collapse, just that it would become irrelevant.  That hasn’t happened and it’s looking less and less likely that it will.

In fact, thanks to the Web’s amazing ability to evolve, we’re soon going to see more innovation than we have in a long while. In a few short years, the web will be more mobile, interconnected, data rich and visually exciting than anything we’ve had before.

The Internet and The Web

At the crux of the issue is that the Internet and the Web are very different things.  I wrote about this at length in an earlier post, but here’s the basics:

The Internet is a computer network, much like the network in your office, but of course almost infinitely larger.  It’s been called “The Information Highway,” but it’s really much more like information plumbing.  We never see it.  It’s a hidden tangle of wires, switchers and routers buried underground, in walls and transmitted through wireless “hot spots.”

The Web, on the other hand, is a presentation layer, not the only one, but the most important.  It’s what we see through our web browsers.  We don’t need a subscription or special software to view it or even a license or special permission to publish on it.  All that you need to compete with the big guys you can find online, for free.

How The Web Works

We don’t really have to use the Web, as our computers have no trouble displaying complex graphics on screen without it.  There are, however, important advantages to the Web

Universality: The web enables information to be accessed on any device, no matter who built it, what software it runs or who created the content.  If it is converted to HTML, we all can see it (and converting is very easy, you can even save Microsoft Office documents to HTML automatically).

Connectivity: Once a page is on the Web, it is theoretically connected to every other page.  It becomes part of the whole ecosystem.  Furthermore, linking allows us to vote for what we think is important.  Links, after all, form the basis of how search engines like Google and Bing help us find what we’re looking for.

Non-Proprietary: The Web is governed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) which is a run by it’s famous inventor, Tim Berners-Lee.  It’s membership is diverse, ranging from the largest multi-nationals to small non-profits.  Fees for low-income countries can be as little as 1000 EUR, so any organization who wants to can join.

The final thing you need to know about the Web is how it develops.  As technology progresses, a technical group within the W3C begins to work out a standard.  It goes through several stages until it becomes what is called a W3C recommendation.  At that point, nobody has to use it, but almost everyone does.

Many of the W3C recommendations are fairly technical and abstract.  However, the newest ones, HTML 5 and CSS 3 will have an enormous impact.

The Web and Apps

The central piece of Chris Anderson’s argument about the decline of the Web was the rise of “apps.”  These applications are software products that rest on your computer rather than in cyberspace and they are optimized for a specific task, like Skype for Internet telephony or the World of Warcraft video game.

The really big thing lately, of course, is mobile apps.  The success of smart phones and tablets have created an app frenzy.  With a few touches of a button you can download an amazing array of products that do just about anything.  Perhaps not surprisingly, “there’s an app for that” has entered the lexicon.

However, problems soon developed.  First, Steve Jobs and Apple have been somewhat overbearing in the governance of their app store.  Second, with the rise of Google’s Android platform, developers have to create apps for two different ecosystems with altogether different standards. A real mess!

Once again, the Web has come to the rescue.  HTML 5 allows the creation of downloadable web apps that work much like Apple and Android apps, but are on the Web’s universal standard.  Look at the Financial Times new app.  Easier development, no compatibility issues, instant updates and no Steve Jobs extorting a 30% cut!

The Rich Media Web

A lot of the young digital hotshots don’t remember, but in the beginning, the Web was pretty boring.  It was basically like looking at paper online.  However, before long things improved.  PHP made sites dynamic (i.e. pages could change – imagine a news site without that!) and picture formats like JPEG and GIF became widespread.

Still, the Web’s graphical capabilities have been pretty lousy.   Into the breech stepped Adobe’s Flash technology which allowed for complex graphics, animation and video (e.g. anything you watch on YouTube).

Yet still, there were problems.  Publishers needed special developers to create Flash features and users to view Flash had to kep their software updated to view it. Also, because there are no links, search engines have trouble recognizing content in Flash, so flash websites are harder for users to find.

Those days are soon to be over as Google’s “Les Paul” doodle (created in HTML 5) shows.  For a demonstration (albeit in a YouTube Flash player) see below:
 

 
It was so popular that Google created a permanent home for it here.

If you haven’t been involved in web development, it’s hard to understand what a breakthrough this is.  Nevertheless, it’s a big deal.  Fantastic user experience. No special technology.  No license fees.  Just a part of the web (and searchable too!).

The Cloud and The Semantic  Web

One of the other things that people are talking a lot about lately is the cloud, where our information is warehoused in huge data centers rather than on our computers.  This is ushering in an era of Big Data where massive amounts of information is stored and mined.

Here as well, the Web remains relevant.  As I explained in an earlier post about the Semantic Web, there is a W3C standard called RDF, which allows you to utilize disparate databases as if they were one.  

It’s already gained traction in the public sector so, for instance, if you want to combine information from a national government with that of the World Bank, you can do so.

Of course, proprietary formats endure, especially for industry groups.  Privacy concerns also remain.  However, having a universal standard for tagging information is essential if we are to make the most out of the world’s data.

The Who Knows What, Anything Goes, Open Web

I’m always a bit reticent when I write about technical issues.  Firstly, because I’m by no means an expert, but also because it’s always hard to show how it’s relevant to everyday use.  However, in this case it boils down to one thing: Money!

The world of innovation is always balancing between the need for a profit motive and the dangers of market dominance.  While Steve Jobs and Apple did us all a big service by launching the iPhone and later the iPad, their overbearing subscription policies threatened to undermine much of the innovation that they themselves had spawned.

The Web’s new standards ensure that individuals and small entrepreneurs can continue to innovate and compete with large corporations.  Moreover, the examples noted above will undoubtedly look quaint a few short years from now.  The technology is new and just coming online.  We’re just getting started.

What lies before us is going to be one of the most exciting periods of innovation that we’ve seen yet:  A rich media experience on a truly open platform, ripe with new possibilities.

- Greg

14 Responses leave one →
  1. June 15, 2011

    Greg
    Great perspective on the importance of the web and its ability to drive innovation. One of the web enabling technologies frequently overlooked is the data transport layer where the communications actually occur. The rise of fast mobile and terrestrial network connections, virtually everywhere, has made the web the center of our lives.

    It’s easy to forget that it’s only a few years since most people were accessing the web through dial-up connections. This is one of the reasons the first dot com boom ended in disaster for many start ups. While there were many half baked business models and irrational expectations, slow communication speeds doomed others… The business vision couldn’t be realized without decent connectivity.

    The difference high speed Internet connections make is perfectly illustrated by the “cloud. ” Connecting to central repositories of data wherever we are relies on storage technologies, software access tools and especially high speed connections.

    The future will be exciting as we roll out 4G and the next generation of high speed networks.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Steven. It’s been said that data transfer speeds are increasing even faster than processing speeds. Truly big things to come!

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  2. June 16, 2011

    Great piece! And a topic that I’ve been struggling with the last couple of days.

    Somewhere we lost track of the fact that the web isn’t the internet. I even heard the philosophy that the “web” will be replaced by an “app ecosystem”. This led to the feeling that as soon as there’s functionality behind a front-end, we can call it an app. Looking at it in this way of course results in the “web” being replaced by “apps” but basically it’s about the web getting functionality. Yes, it was born as merely a consult medium.

    Looking at the development of html5 and CSS3, is it valid to label something as “an app” when it’s basically functionality, wrapped for distribution in a specific app store?

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Tim,

    I’m really not an expert, but as I understand it an “app” is something with client side functionality. In other words, it rests on your computer an takes info from the Internet. This has some obvious benefits because it allows for greater functionality and specialization.

    So the big difference is that Android and Apple apps are proprietary and web apps (which use HTML 5, CSS 3 and Javascript) are not. They will work on both Apple and Android products and as an added bonus can update automatically.

    This post explains it much better than I can: http://www.quirksmode.org/blog/archives/2010/03/html5_apps.html

    The downside is if you build a web app, neither Apple or Google will help you market it. The upside, of course, is that you have 100% control over distribution and don’t have to pay them a cut.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  3. June 20, 2011

    Thank you for this comprehensive post. Every time new technology comes out, it’s easy to pronounce the death of the old ones. Sometimes this is warranted, but sometimes it’s premature or just downright ignorant because people just don’t understand the technology in the first place. As you mentioned, the way we are using the web is changing. And the Internet will never go away because it’s not the web – big difference. I think cloud computing and the next wave of innovation will be a big reason why both the internet and the web are here to stay.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Rosemary. Keep the faith!

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  4. Robert H. permalink
    June 21, 2011

    I’d agree (once again) with your main point with one caveat. The dangers of the web are still growing, and they’re bad enough as is right now. The new “spear phishing” attacks and the growing sophistication of the spam and malware is unbelievable. I think there’s an argument to be made for managed and gated semi-closed or fully closed ecosystems like the IPad seems to be growing into for a *lot* of people. I think there’s a lot of money to be made if done right though I have my doubts about anyone managing such a balancing act. Most people out there don’t seem competent to manage the needed security of the kind of PC systems that have grown up from the naive early days of personal computers and a lot of them don’t seem to want to. For that matter quite a few large companies that *should* know also seem alarmingly negligent. It reminds me of the old Jerry Pournelle book “Oath of Fealty” about another “closed” society. Though I *really* doubt if anyone can do that well at managing it. It’s the same old problem of a truly benevolent dictator, the succession issue. It may happen but the odds don’t favor a repeat in subsequent generations.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath_of_Fealty_%28novel%29

    Robert H.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Robert,

    I agree with your main point with one caveat:-)

    Security issues are certainly getting more sophisticated, but that’s not an internet vs web issue or even an open vs. closed issue, we see it in every facet of technology. For instance, the potential for processing speed to outrun our supply of large prime numbers.

    I wrote a bit about it a while ago: http://www.digitaltonto.com/2009/can-we-keep-our-information-safe/

    btw. I’m really enjoying these comments!

    - Greg

    [Reply]

    Robert H. Reply:

    “I’m really enjoying these comments!”

    Thank you, let me know (either publicly or privately) if you’d rather I didn’t.

    I see the Security issues (and not being able to defeat them) as [possibly] degenerating the open web into large enclosed enclaves. Certainly not the web as we know it anymore and more like a version of the “app” world. If you take it as an item of faith that we *will* defeat the security issues then no. But don’t know if that’s going to happen.

    Robert H.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Robert,

    No, I DEFINITELY enjoy them and find them helpful (even the last one:-).

    btw. I don’t take it on faith that we will “win” the security battle. It’ll never end, so it’s something we’ll constantly have to fight, sometimes getting ahead and sometimes falling behind.

    - Greg

    Robert H. Reply:

    That seems like an item of faith that the struggle will continue to be much like it is now. :-)

    I can see the security situation getting so bad that essentially most people retreat to “walled gardens” where most of it is controlled. Much like the IPad World. Don’t know. Then of course I can see many societies in the World setting up such gardens for their own purposes and requiring all Internet access to be through them in their borders.

    But then my own “faith” tends to be on the optimistic side. I believe we *will* clean up much of the Internet but I can’t offer any reasons for believing so.

    Robert H.

    Greg Reply:

    I guess that’s true:-)

    I see your point about “walled gardens,” but the long term trend seems to be going the other way. Moreover, it’s specific technologies, not the Internet or The Web that gets hacked. So I don’t see how walled gardens protect us. The biggest target for hackers will always be the most successful (and therefore widely proliferated) technologies and even walled gardens follow a power law.

    - Greg

  5. July 6, 2011

    Thank you for providing such a comprehensive summary of today’s Web, App and Cloud hype — couldn’t have said it better myself, as the arrogant saying goes. I note your careful statement “…what is called a W3C recommendation.  At that point, nobody has to use it, but almost everyone does.” — to which I, and many fellow developers would add, “everyone, apart from Internet Explorer”. It seems that even that browser’s version 9 has a different interpretation of CSS3 than the prescribed standard — here we go again.
    In any case, I’ll be sharing the link to your excellent post as an example of “the current hype explained”.

    Thanks again,
    Pier.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Piers,

    Thanks for the kudos! I wasn’t aware of the IE 9 problems. I sure hope it’s not a rerun of IE 6….

    - Greg

    [Reply]

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