Does the Web Matter Anymore?

January 25, 2013

in Mozilla,Post-PC/Ambient Computing,This blog

Recently a friend of mine asked this question.  His theory was that the open web, as described in the Mozilla Mission no longer mattered because much of what we used to do using web browsers is now rapidly shifting to “apps”.  Why worry about the open web if nobody is going to be using it?

To me, this is really a question about what do we mean by “the web”. If by  ”the web” we are just referring to the current worldwide collection of information made available by http servers and accessed most commonly using desktop browsers, then maybe he’s right.  While I use it all the time, I don’t think very much about the future of that web. Much about it will surely  change over the next decade. The 1995 era technologies do not necessarily need to be protected and nourished. They aren’t all good.

What I think about is the rapidly emerging pervasive and ambient information ecology that we are living within. This includes every digital device we regularly interact with. It includes devices that provide access to information but also devices that collect information. Some devices are “mobile”, others are build into physical infrastructure that surrounds us. It includes the sort of high production-value creative works that we see today “on the web” and still via pre-web media.  But it also includes, every trivial digital artifact that I create while going about my daily life and work.

Is this “the web”?   I’m perfectly happy to call it that.  It certainly encompasses the web, as we know it today.  But we need to be careful using that term to ensure that our thinking and actions aren’t over constrained by our perception of yesterday’s “web”.  This is why I like to tell people we are still in the very early stages of the next digital era.  I believe that the web we have today is, at most, the Apple-|| or TRS-80 of this new era. If we are going to continue to use  ”the web” as a label then it needs to represent a 20+ year vision that transcends http and web browsers.

Technology generally evolves incrementally. Almost all of us spend almost all of our time working on things that are just “tactical” from the perspective of a twenty-year vision.  We are responding to what is happening today and working for achievement and advantage over the next 1-3 years. I think that the shift from “websites” to “apps” that my friend mentioned is just one of these tactical technology evolutionary vectors that is a point on the road to the future. The phenomena isn’t necessarily any more or less important than other point in time alternatives such as Flash vs. HTML or iOS vs. Android.  I think it would be a mistake to assume that “apps” is a fundamental shift.  We’ll know better in five years.

While everybody has to be tactical, a long-term vision still has a vital role.  A vision of a future that we yearn to achieve is an important influence upon our day-to-day tactical work. It’s the star that we steer by. A personal concern of mine is that we are severely lacking in this sort of long-term visions of  ”the web”.  That’s why my plan for this year is to write more posts like “A Cloud on your Ceiling” that explore some of these longer term questions. I encourage you to also spend some time to think long term.  What short of digital enhanced world do you want to be living in twenty years from now?  What are you doing to help us get there?

(Photo by “mind_scratch”, Creative Commons Attribution License)

{ 17 comments }

Lyre Calliope January 25, 2013 at 11:58 am

I actually have a big audacious vision for what the web could be, but it has lots of holes.. the largest being a working definition of what the ‘Open Web’ and its defining characteristics irrespective of the technology stack its implemented on top of. ‘I know it when I see it’ just doesn’t cut it.

Regarding ‘Apps’, I think the whole notion begins to break down as they are implemented on the web. We can try and approximate the experience of native platform apps, but the powerful benefits of the web will keep on seeping in.. and I think Apps developed in/on/for the web are the beginning of us moving away from an object-oriented to an agent-oriented web.

There’s a something of a cambrian explosion of Apps going on across platforms.. including the web. There’s a parallel explosion happening with APIs. I envision a time in which every person has their own personal API. So, why not their Apps? In the near future I envision, the open web Apps architecture currently in development will be the primary means of interacting with people. You’ll be able to install me onto your dashboard where I’ll exist on equal footing with Google and Facebook apps. The same tools for managing App permissions for browser/hardware functionality and personal data access will manage my access to these things. My user agent (phone, browser, etc) will be tightly integrated with my public, installable ‘App’ such that they are indistinguishable. In this sense, Facebook ‘the app’ becomes Facebook ‘the organization.’

I think BrowserID+Apps may succeed where OpenID failed in turning urls into personal identifiers in large part because the movement from a web of documents to a web of intelligent agents was always the requisite development.

And if we are indeed moving toward an agent-oriented web, we should probably bring the lessons of the past into current architecture discussions to make sure we aren’t missing opportunities to implement known best practices that will take years to rectify.

Kerry Bennett January 27, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Interesting thought, and one similar to my own. I know a lot will not think this way, however HTML / JavaScript application development is a mess. We have extremely sophisticated “back end” architectures, however when it comes to developing the browser client, it’s still crude and difficult to build any form of sophisticated client. The App platforms are so much more sophisticated and potentially far more robust. So I agree that perhaps the Web (browser) as a application development platform, even with HTML 5 & CSS 3 , may be drawing its last breaths. We will just have to wait and see what innovations will occur to save the browser as an application platform. One thing that will have to improve with App development is to improve is the quality. Too many Apps are still really only Beta quality.

Rob G January 28, 2013 at 2:22 am

Maybe you need to look up the difference between “web” and “internet”.

To me it looks like most of the new app’s etc. on mobile devices are internet apps. They’re not web apps, by definition.

allen January 28, 2013 at 9:46 am

You’re making a technical distinction that few users of this technology make.

My main point here, is that use of specific technologies are often transient, period-of-time events. What is more important is the nature of the overall digital ecosystem we will evolve over the next few decades. What vision will guide us in doing that?

Rob G January 29, 2013 at 5:43 am

“You’re making a technical distinction that few users of this technology make.”

That may be true, but it doesn’t mean the distinction is not worth making. The Internet is a truly remarkable engineering feat that has grown from its initial purpose into the backbone of the modern world with remarkably few glitches. It enables this entire technology stack.

By contrast the web is broken. HTML and CSS are really, really bad designs that have been pushed to the limits. JavaScript is a brilliant language hiding in flawed clothing. I think these may be as large a factor in the take off of app’s as anything – it is generally a much pleasanter experience to develop.

The problem with all this is that we’re moving more and more to a number of closed systems, that attempt to lock users in to one vendors ecosystem. I imagine that when the dust settles we’ll have a whole suite of anti-trust issues to resolve in the courts.

Alan Kay wrote some good words on the deficiencies of the web in a recent article for Dr Dobb’s Journal. As part of the team that invented object-oriented programming and the modern GUI I think he’s eminently well-qualified to remark on such issues.

James T January 28, 2013 at 5:47 am

“.. much of what we used to do using web browsers is now rapidly shifting to “apps”.”

Is this true? Certainly there are a few extremely popular uses of the web that people primarily use “apps” for, almost entirely social networking: twitter, facebook, and so on. That is without a doubt a lot of users, but a narrow slice of what people use the web for… and in the case of facebook and twitter, I’m not sure people ever really “used to” use browsers for them a lot. They took off exponentially as a direct result of the way portable phones add value to those services.

But regardless, the choice of someone to use an “app” versus a “web browser” to develop a front-end for their service is purely a practical one. When smartphones took off, it wasn’t possible to develop facebook (or any sophisticated application) as something that worked well in a browser on smartphone. The phones weren’t fast enough, and the general understanding of how to do such things in a browser was hypothetical at best.

In the few years since then, phones are faster, browsers are faster, and the toolset has evolved dramatically directly as a result of this need.

The browser as an application framework is rife with problems stemming from its legacy. But at the same time its continued, nay, increasing relevance, and ability to adapt to the modern face of the web, speaks volumes about its robustness at the core. A modern web browser will still work with a web application developed nearly 20 years ago, and is capable of hosting interactive real-time applications, streaming video, games, and all manner of things that would have been laughed off as impossible at that time. How many other platforms have been built upon a framework capable of such evolution?

I think the browser, HTML, and javascript are going to be around a lot longer than any native app platform.

Jason P Sage January 28, 2013 at 6:58 am

I think new stuff is fine, but don’t break what’s working fine. Backwards compatibility for web standards that have been around a long time are much easier to support than say doing so for an operating system.

In short, add new if you like and if it ain’t broke: Don’t FIX IT or NIX IT

Jonathan January 28, 2013 at 7:01 am

The move to apps is, in my opinion, another round of the “centralized/decentralized” cycle that repeats. We started with mainframes – everything was centralized and all the information was in one place. All users accessed it from the central location. The problem was that it was not always possible to be connected to that central location. The move to PCs changed the focus to a decentralized vision. We could use our PCs even when we were not connected to the central mainframe – at home, for instance. But then the issue of keeping all the individual PCs updated became an issue. Updates had to be pushed out to users, and a user with the wrong version could break the system. So we shifted back to a centralized version: never mind keeping software on the local PC, just build a web application and all users connect to that central repository. Updates happen on the web server and all users automatically get the right version. But the problem is that users are not always connected. Now we are seeing a move away from websites to apps, the same move we had from central control (mainframe, website) to decentralized (programs on PCs, apps on mobile). We are going to find that installing and maintaining hundreds of apps on a mobile device is challenging, and changing devices will become almost impossible, so we are going to store everything in the cloud – a move back to centralization. Then we will discover that we are not always connected to the cloud and will move back to a decentralized platform, whatever form that takes.

The web is a means of distribution. What we choose to distribute on it will vary from time to time, from person to person, and from company to company.

hotrod5000 January 28, 2013 at 3:16 pm

I agree that we are just observing the pendulum swinging. The “cloud” is very hot right now, and I would say that in 3-5 years we will observe the pendulum swinging back. I heard a bit on NPR this morning about the US government trying to get personal info from google, and google telling them, no, you’ll need a warrant for that.

People and businesses will overexpose themselves in the cloud, and then take corrective action to reign it back in. Just my 2cents.

allen January 28, 2013 at 5:51 pm

I agree that there is such a pendulum swing affect in the popularity for various technologies and application architecture styles.

But I also think there is something deeper going on. Sure some, PC’s were just used to make new more modern looking versions of 1970 vintage 3270 “green screen” applications. But that wasn’t what the PC Era of computing was all about. Such applications were (and still are) just an adaption of a “Corporate Computing Era” use case using PC era technology. The real, significance of the PC era was the introduction of a complete new role for computing within society that didn’t exist in the previous era. The most successful companies of the PC era where those that understood that.

I foresee something very similar happening in the emerging Ambient Computing Era. Sure, we will still use technologies and support use cases from the Corporate and PC eras, but the important changes are about fundamentally new uses of computing devices.

Perry January 28, 2013 at 7:57 am

I see the web as a universally connected, interactive environment that is device independent and easy to program for… markup – html/style – css/functionality – js can be modified in real-time without the need to compile. I’ve been investing my time into modern, cross platform website and web app projects. The web browser acts like the OS or terminal which serves all “software” available on the web. We’ll start to see devices that implement web browser technology as the primary UI/UX layer – something like Chrome OS. With html5, graphics and games can be rendered natively in the browser by dedicated video processor/memory on the device. It’s not much different from the separate app platforms in terms of possibilities, but it is more “open”. App platforms will plateau at some point and surrender to the next best thing, but the web will continue to evolve.

chash360 January 28, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I have to disagree with the statements about the web not having a long term vision. Having been part of the internet since its infancy (before http/html), I sometime flip-flop on the definition to the ‘web’, and whether the speaker who uses the term is refering to the entire internet or just http. The internet is a NETwork that connects us all INTERactively. The protocol that is http is one of many, and without a doubt, had a long term vision, I saw the first drafts of this in HTML specifications. The Statment: “The browser as an application framework is rife with problems stemming from its legacy” is flawed. Its not stemming from its legacy, it was never intended to be an application framework. The original vision was to have a safe and secure way of viewing, and interacting with primarily static text and image based information in a cross platform manner that did not expose ones personal system to outside threat. Only with the ‘sandbox’ method like original http/html could you do such a thing, because they were static text files, they did not perform tasks. The internet was and still is to a degree an open unsecure network, its supposed to be, it was designed to be open. Security was to be implemented in the sandbox structure. Since then I have watched the security and privacy go out the window (no pun intended, but recognize there is one ;-) . With the advent of scripting and other active, arbitrary code executed from a remote source methods, that security model is erroded . Apps are a continuation of this, but I do not consider them part of the ‘web’, even when they use web sites to interface with the internet. Apps basically are just using custom, proprietary protocols over the internet, even when they use http websites to communicate that protocol, the difference is you no longer have the assurance of a scrutinized standard, that at least is trying to be open and secure. The App mentality, is motivated by money, by creating something non-standard, and proprietary they claim IP, and have developed ways to charge for service rather than product, and without public scutiny of code, they can gather and use the most powerful substance known to man, knowledge. The commercial side of the internet wants to know all about you and how to sell you more things, to make money.

I totally agree with the centralize de-centralize aspects stated by Jonathan, this does happen too, and will continue, and is additionally motivated by money. When we can get to a model that seamlessly transitions between connected and unconnected, and where network access become more ubiquitous, some of this flux will decrease.

None of the monetary/commercial aspects of the internet, were an original intention, but they are here to stay. As long as there are Apps and proprietary protocols and exchanges, without standards and public scrutiny of code, and remote execution of arbitrary code, there will be confusion, compatibility issues, exclusive device-service provider restrictions, and all manner of money making schemes to perpetuate the constant selling of electricity by the bit, for huge markups.

Both Cars and Computing/Communication devices are subject to fads, but cars also wear out. Software has no moving parts, it does not wear out, and most electronic devices last much longer than the software that runs on them is supported. If they don’t keep changing and repackaging it in a way that forces you to buy a new device or service or software, the percieved value and profit would drop. Phsically our devices do not do anything much different than they did 4 decades ago, they store and communicate information, sometimes they act upon the information new ways (where most of the evolution/change occurs), but from a networks perspective, it should not care about what your device does with the data.

In short the web (http/html), or something else that is standards based, open, and royalty free, is important to not costing everyone more money and hassle, for all the information and utlitiy that is still free (or could yet be) on and with the internet.

I do belive we could benefit from a separation, returning http/html to purely markup with out apps/scripting, and create a new channel/protocol for a networked application frame work based upon open royalty free standards and tools because it is the best method of creating truly cross platform compatible code and devices, which ultimately reduces the cost of all this technology and nifty gadgets.

Peter Young January 28, 2013 at 5:36 pm

I am thinking the other way around. Mobile apps will eventually die. Web-based application will take over in the future. Mobile apps are only suitable for small programs or game programs. Mobile apps are vendor dependent but web-based application is open. It is very inconvenient to build an app for all platform, e.g. iPhone, Andriod Phone, Window Phone, etc. Installation and updating of apps are inconvenient too. If there is a bug, developer need to fix various versions for various platforms and have to make sure that all users will install the new updated version!

chash360 January 28, 2013 at 9:42 pm

This is exactly the point I am making, Apps are proprietary (owned), all the frameworks for developing them are proprietary, and most of the distibution points for Apps are proprietary. This does create a lot of things to maintain, but of course right now end users are paying for this inefficiency, not the device and software companies. Be it either a bug or just the vendor does not want to continue supporting an App or device, forces people to buy new stuff. Its called planned obsolecense and all companies do it. Our only saving grace is that the Internet and its protocols are not a company or coorperation, all of the accepted standards are public domain, royalty free, its the only way to keep the Internet open and free. Once we abandon use and support of these free protocols, then everything over the Internet will become proprietary, and we will get charged for every bit we consume.

Monique January 29, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Many mobile apps use WS which often uses https (web protocol) endpoints. More private WS will use a tcp protocol for request/response cycles.

As has happened before proprietary gets replaces by open platforms. Developers will not tolerate writing for many platforms for too long for one app and out of this community the open platform gets created and becomes highly used to the point that proprietary outfits have to adopt or lose market share.

We’re more apt to see more WS/API back-ends with http/https *or better) end points and an open front-end language ( prob HTML5+ ) that runs on all desktop/mobile/etc platforms. Applications will be written once and downloadable to all platforms with internet connections. Front end will be anyone and back end will be registered coders only. Just pass free competencies.

People will most likely have cloud accounts as their gateway to all apps as the norm in 10 years. The Admin ( prob mom/dad for families) will use some card activation and then set up user accounts and register devices that can use the account and the apps users will use and the level they can use them. All users will have to card activate their membership (mostly family/friends).

The account Admin buys subscription based services or allow members to buy services for the cloud account. Only registered devices/users can access the cloud account and gain access to the apps the admin allows. The user’s access will use a card reader to plug in the registered access card as their entry. They can keep the card with their keys and get new cards and deactivate old ones quickly if lost or stolen. Once the key is in all they’ll do is a visual password for a session. They set this up during activation. These accounts will do mostly server to server communications . User interactions will mostly be from mouse, voice, EEG, or pointer devices. Most input fields will have apps with a design that uses a set list of choices for input, only message boxes allow for input and it’ll be encoded voice/EEG to text or encoded typed text only.

Peter Hanley January 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

>> “You’re making a technical distinction that few users of this technology make.”

>”That may be true, but it doesn’t mean the distinction is not worth making.”

The distinction between all of the concerns above: {“apps” , “the web”, “the open web” , “the internet” } is pretty hard to make, considering the entire set is as mushy a set of words as anything else people argue about.

You obliquely answered your own question when you published this essay on “the web” using a “webapp” (Wordpress) which people used a variety of “apps” to read via “the internet” and they were able to publicly respond more or less instantaneously, creating a “virtual” “public space.”

So the answer is “yes, the web still matters anymore.” Because giving every copy of an app a uri that is as reliable as one pointing at a server in a data center is … well, it’s a delicious idea for a tech startup, at least.

But currently, not terribly feasible. Imagine what it would be like if when I went to read your essay you were in a tunnel or something, and I got a “App not available – try later” message. Horrible.

Note – I normally hate air/scare-quotes – in this case they’re meant to call out vague, mushy words, unless they’re being used for their “intended purpose,” to mark a “quotation.”

Anonymous Coward February 1, 2013 at 2:16 am

“If we are going to continue to use ”the web” as a label then it needs to represent a 20+ year vision that transcends http and web browsers.” Either I am missing something, or you are missing something. The vision of the web IMO already transcends http and web browsers. http is at best a base protocol, on top of which many specialized protocols and meta-protocols have already been built. Consumers of web resources are no longer limited to web browsers, and this is already going on for years.

“Technology generally evolves incrementally. ” And exponentially. Which means that having a vision for three to five years today is the same as having a vision for two decades three decades ago.

Technology may evolve, but general systems theory stays the same, and social behavior doesn’t change as fast as technology. Mankind has continually improved communication at an exponential rate throughout the ages. It took tens of millennia to develop writing. It only took a couple to develop printing. After a few short centuries we got mobile type printing. Teletypes quickly followed, some decades later. It didn’t take much until desktop publishing evolved – already in the 60-70-80′s, in is initial form. We then got the read-only web, and then the read-write/interactive web of today. Most likely, a few generations from now the web will be integrated in our brains – Google’s glass project is a first hint at where we’re headed. IMO it will all continue at a similar pace until we get to our own physiological limits – to which the web as it is today is already very close, IMO, in terms of bandwidth. (Which may also be the reason why the pace seems to have slowed down, if compared on a logarithmic scale with what it was one or two centuries ago.)

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