The Web’s Big Future
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.
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.