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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Rise of the Other Web

Isn't the Web great? Isn't it crazy and anarchic, vibrant and wild, unpredictable, awesome and thoroughly marvelous? Well it has been, but there is no guarantee that it will stay that way.

I've been working with and researching Hypertext for nearly fifteen years. The Hypertext systems that I studied for my PhD were alternative contemporaries of the early Web - based on a desktop model and inter-operating applications. But since that time we've seen the Web take Hypertext away from the desktop and make it global. The Web we have built is democratic and open; anyone can publish, and most importantly anyone can link. For profit, for criticism, for fun, for ill, the technologies of the Web do not judge or distinguish.
there is a new trend that threatens the democratic and egalitarian nature of the Web...
For a while there we all went a bit Web loopy, remember Microsoft's incredible about turn when they discovered the Internet and tried to turn your desktop into a Web browser? And of course there is the current crop of Web Applications, point your browser at and it turns into a collaborative text editor.

But there is a new trend that threatens the democratic and egalitarian nature of the Web. It plays to consumerism and relies on technical naivety. It is the App Store.

I must concede that the Apple App Store is brilliantly executed. Apple weren't the first to think of making a library of downloadable components but they were the first to make it truly usable and in the process defined a whole new vocabulary for everyday users. 'There's an App for That' is now a part of popular culture and I admire it enough that we are borrowing the whole meme for some of our own systems.

So Apps are great for extending the functionality of a device but the worrying trend is for information providers to use mobile Apps to encircle information and provide it to you neatly packaged, but crucially outside of the Web and all its egalitarian mechanisms. This trend is set to continue as providers realise that Apps include a handy micro-payments system that means they can charge for content again. You can almost hear the sound of old business models being wheeled out and firing up their antiquated boilers.

To some extend this is positive, after all professional journalists and artists are all part of a healthy society, and we need to find ways of supporting their work. But I worry that the commercial pressure to do this will create a generation of isolated tools that take but do not give back. The App model has been so commercially successful that Apple is threatening to roll it out to their MacOS platform, and what Apple does today, Microsoft will do in five years time, and if that happens this kind of control could well become the norm across all of our computing devices.

We should be very nervous about the impact of all of this on the Web. In the nineties it was the digital home of geekdom, but its got a lot more interesting since everyone else joined the party. It would be a shame to go back.

Tim Berners-Lee highlights this problem in his latest Scientific American article (amongst other concerns with Net Neutrality and Openness):

"Other companies are also creating closed worlds. The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone “apps” rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. ... But as we saw in the 1990s with the America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web, these closed, “walled gardens,” no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates."

His point is that the 'Other' Web created by the App model is not a Web at all. Just the opposite - it is isolated, singular, and barren in comparison. Cartoonist Hugh Macleod makes the same point more bluntly:

The challenge for computer scientists (or should that be Web Scientists) is to work out how to work the benefits of the App Store into the open web, thus protecting it from the closed model. This should probably include the quality of the user experience (HTML5 may address some of this) and the need for an efficient micro-payment model has never been so pressing. 

But perhaps we should also challenge some of our assumptions - for example, the web browser may not be the only portal onto the wonderful web world, there may be a place for more specific applications that play nicely and use Web standards in a broader web ecology, downloadable Apps that are URI addressable, and which switch you seamlessly from one App to another.

Come to think of it,  that sounds a lot like good old fashioned Open Hypermedia - perhaps History will be kinder than we all expected :-)


wonkydonky said...

*caugh* plagiariser *caugh*

Dave Millard said...

Hang on - I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him!

Interestingly I actually wrote this article back in the Summer (probably around the same time that was published, although I promise I never read it :-), but it sat on my laptop for a couple of months until I was reminded on it by Berners-Lee's Scientific American piece. Perhaps there was something in the air that month!

The question is: do great minds think alike, or do fools never differ?

Rikki said...

Are there proposed any micropayment systems that would be integrated into the technology of the web? Things like PayPal are built on top of the web, but I imagine you are suggesting something more integral?