Is the Web really dead?

From Webmonkey's 'How to web apps and native apps compare?'

I’ve really enjoyed this semester’s web architecture class taught by seasoned web geek, Erik Wilde. With lectures and assignments on everything from geolocation in html5, to the possibilities offered by offline storage, to security and privacy on the web, it’s been really interesting to get this big picture perspective on the web as a whole.

Erik recently pointed to two examples of Internet navel-gazing by Wired – once in 1997 in an article entitled ‘Push!‘ and more recently, ‘The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet!‘ from September this year. The 1997 article told us to ‘kiss (our) browser goodbye!’ declaring that ‘The Net has begun offering things you simply can’t browse.’ The basis for their reasoning? The web doesn’t (didn’t) work anymore.

If the Web were working perfectly for everyone, we might not need to contemplate subtle new variations. But strong forces are dislodging the browser from its throne:

First is the little-uttered secret that many Web users suffer a sense of being lost and overwhelmed. That’s why 50 percent of regular users in one recent survey report that they simply don’t surf anymore – they hit the same sites every time they log on. The best part of the Web is its worst: it’s a web. You don’t know where the good stuff is, and when you land there, the signal is camouflaged by all the noise. Clicking becomes Russian roulette. Yeah, rolling your own is very rewarding, but often we’d like someone else to slip us a ready-made. Even though it may not be as nifty as the one we made. Or maybe because it is niftier and better made. As it is now, there is an audience of millions with high expectations, and they aren’t being satisfied.

I agree that the Web became (is?) huge and overwhelming, but when Kevin Kelly and Gavin Wolf said that that would drive us away to the comforting arms of big (television-type) media producers where we would once again sink into the couch to have our content delivered (pushed) to us. What actually happened was that the companies who rose up were the ones who helped us find the good stuff. Google pushed out other competitors because it analyzed human-generated links to web pages (assuming web pages linked from many important pages are themselves likely to be important) rather than looking at individual sites say about themselves. Twitter enables us to tell one another what we’re reading – taking us places we’ve never been to before. Rather than “going back” to big media producers to show us what’s good (I, for one, never left for what it’s worth), we’ve found better ways of asking trusted individuals and communities where to find quality information.

It’s 2010 and the browser (and the www for that matter) are both still looking pretty healthy despite Wired’s doomsday predictions. But Wired (now from the perspective of Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff) are sticking to their guns and making the ‘push vs pull’ argument yet again. People want content to be pushed to them, says Wired. Take a look at APIs, apps and the smartphone. ‘Tens of millions of consumers (are) already voting with their wallets for an app-led experience,’ they say.

And the Web of YouTube, Twitter and weblogs? Ah, say Anderson and Wolff: that’s still going to be there — don’t you worry. Actually it turns out that they’re only talking about the ‘commercial content side of the digital economy’ (my emphasis) when they say that the ‘Web is dead’:

‘(T)he great virtue of today’s Web is that so much of it is noncommercial. The wide-open Web of peer production, the so-called generative Web where everyone is free to create what they want, continues to thrive, driven by the nonmonetary incentives of expression, attention, reputation, and the like. But the notion of the Web as the ultimate marketplace for digital delivery is now in doubt.’

So basically what they are telling us is that the Web is only dead for companies? We’re off on the Web sharing videos on YouTube and pointing friends to new blogposts we’ve found on newsworthy topics and the companies are off there in the apps delivering that same content back to us in app format? Anderson seems to think that, because it’s just the companies who are moving off the Web, we don’t have to worry about the decline of open standards:

(Jonathan) Zittrain argues that the demise of the all-encompassing, wide-open Web is a dangerous thing, a loss of open standards and services that are “generative” — that allow people to find new uses for them. “The prospect of tethered appliances and software as service,” he warns, “permits major regulatory intrusions to be implemented as minor technical adjustments to code or requests to service providers.”
But what is actually emerging is not quite the bleak future of the Internet that Zittrain envisioned. It is only the future of the commercial content side of the digital economy.

Is Anderson saying that it’s ok for commercial services to be closed simply because we can go off and do all this ‘noncommercial’ stuff on the Web where, presumably, such closed systems are not going to be in place?

I get the Netflix example, but I really don’t understand how this will play out in the so-called user-generated content space. And I’d give my left kidney (maybe) to know what would happen to Facebook if they started charging for their service in app-format.

I just can’t see it happening but that’s the funny thing about the future…

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