Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Web Is Dead... Really?

The cover story for Wired Magazine this month, proclaiming that "The Web Is Dead", is clearly designed to be provocative. It's also true.

Here's why. If you actually read the argument, you'll understand that what the authors mean is, not that the internet is dead, but that the free and open Web - in the collectivist utopian sense - is dead. This is an important distinction. Even though they often get conflated, the internet and the Web are two different things. The internet refers to the network; the Web refers to one application on that network where we browse publicly accessible pages and documents. The authors argue that the network isn't going anywhere (in fact, they say it's become as crucial to modern life as electricity). It's the open Web that is fading into twilight.

Granted, this is a bit of exaggeration. Nobody in their right mind believes that Google is suddenly going the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon. However, Chris Anderson's point is that the Web we grew accustomed to in the 90s has gradually been replaced. And, importantly, it's been us who have voluntarily chosen to replace it...

Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule. And it’s the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen).


To support this argument, the following chart on internet traffic is provided showing how less and less internet traffic is devoted to Web surfing...



The main point to take away from all of this is that we, as information and media consumers, have gradually chosen to shift our preferences away from elements of the open Web and towards the so-called "walled gardens" of the internet - iPhone apps, Facebook, Skype, Netflix, XBox, etc. These are all examples of utilities that are delivered over the internet, but which are not publicly accessible unless you either pay for them or at least agree to what are often stringent terms of service.

These walled gardens are described by scholar Jonathan Zittrain as being a dangerous thing. They lead to "a loss of open standards and services that are 'generative' - [meaning that they] allow people to find new uses for them. The prospect of tethered appliances and software as service permits major regulatory intrusions to be implemented as minor technical adjustments to code or requests to service providers."

Basically, it means the Everyman can no longer tinker with what's out there - and that is the most fundamental defining characteristic of the early Web. As the trend towards proprietary walled gardens continues, it is a value that is increasingly lost.

The reaction to the article in cyberspace has been, predictably, a passionate one. Prominent blogs like Boing Boing question the aforementioned graph on internet traffic, TechCrunch predicts that people will inevitably become "overwhelmed" by apps and return to the browser (yet doesn't explain how or why), and Gawker highlights several hypocrisies of the article, such as how Wired published the cover story first to the Web, not through its iPad app, apparently because the editors still believe "it pays better to deliver that news via a dying medium".

While so many digerati are outraged, feel defensive, and are, quite possibly, in denial about the "Web is Dead" argument, that doesn't necessarily make it untrue. It seems foolish to deny the power of apps in the current internet environment, and it doesn't seem like that's going to change anytime soon. Most likely, the power of apps will only increase over time, rather than diminish, particularly as smartphones become ever more ubiquitous. To be sure, HTML pages, browsers, and blogs aren't disappearing off the face of the earth; they are also clearly here to stay, but they also now have to share the internet with their walled brethren who are usually backed by companies with significant resources.

The open Web may not be completely dead. But in an app-driven world, it's not nearly as far-fetched an argument as its critics would wish it to be.
  

2 Comments:

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Patrick C. Fitzpatrick said...

Rob,
I've been following this discussion; thanks for clarifying a few keys points. Good writing as always. Thanks for breaking it down.

 
At 3:29 PM, Blogger Rob Domanski said...

Thanks, Fitz. You definitely get the award for most loyal and willing-to-comment reader! It's appreciated!

 

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