JW on Tech

James Whittaker is a technology executive focused on making the web a better place for users and developers. He is a former Googler, former professor and former startup founder. Follow him on Twitter @docjamesw.

Now you see it, in 20 years you won't

Now you see it, in 20 years you won't

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"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

- T. S. Eliot

 

Google's Marissa Mayer gave a Flintstonian glimpse at what search might look like in 20 years including "predicting what restaurant you might like in a new city" and "connecting you with strangers based on common interests." Things that take entire seconds today will take ... entire seconds in 2032. Thankfully, for Mayer at least, violating Moore's Law carries no actual criminal or civil penalties. 

In a nutshell, what Mayer (and I assume Google) is proposing is that in twenty years Google and the web will still be standing between knowledge and its consumption. Google has 40 billion reasons to be patient regarding the future. But their lack of urgency is irrelevant. A future where knowledge will stand on its own is well and fully underway. What is mere data and information today, stored over a hodge-podge web of machines requiring it to be crawled and recrawled constantly, will be ingested, conflated, curated and crowdsourced into a pool of universally accessible knowledge. Google won't lord over it; their specialized librarian skills will be distributed across a world of people who can curate data or expose knowledge in useful and interesting ways. It's a world where value is real and not generated by sponsorship, click farms and middle men. The Arab world is having their spring, so is knowledge. It is being liberated from the confines of a web that enriches the few and taxes the rest. This Information Spring will not require 20 years to play out.

20 years! Turn the clock back to 1992, 20 years ago, and very few people had email addresses, video game consoles, mobile phones, home computers ... This was the era of phonebooks, file cabinets, folding maps, Rolodexes, landlines and paying for long distance phones calls. 20 years! 20 years ago people learned about computers in specialized courses and on university campuses. Today, toddlers perfect gaming strategy on mobile phones more powerful than any of those machines. 20 years! Computing went from the bleeding edge to dominating the business and social fabric of society. Think back for a moment over the past 20 years and realize just how far we've come. Now look forward 20 years and imagine ... restaurant recommendations? Hook ups with strangers? Really? Ok, well yabba dabba do! to you too.

20 years is a long time. Too long perhaps for predictions of any accuracy. Fortunately, what is happening right now with the web is pointing us squarely toward what the web will be like, not in 20 years but more like 2 or 3. Search is labor intensive and requires far too much human involvement. I spent the better part of the 90s acting as the help desk for my non tech social circle. Now I serve as their personal search engine optimizer. Here's an experiment: give ten people a browser each and ask them to use search to complete some task. This experiment can easily have ten different experiences and search results. That's why booking travel is such a pain. That's why searching for sports scores is such a pain. Your success at search depends on how good you are at it and how much time you devote to it. Users have noticed and abandoned search in droves, particularly mobile search. They voted with their fingers and installed apps to do the search work for them. Apps are capable of sorting through just the portions of the web you might be interested in. Don't search the web for soccer scores, use an app. Don't search the web for hotel deals, use an app. Apps are better because they cut search out of the equation. Apps succeed in large part because search is so broken.

You want a prediction of the future? The trend of disappearing search will continue. The web will melt into the background and humans will progressively be removed from their labor intensive and frustrating present by automation. In five years the web is likely to be completely invisible. You will simply express your intent and the knowledge you seek will be yours. Users will be seamlessly routed to apps capable of fulfilling their intent. Apps won't need to be installed by a user; they will be able to find opportunities to be useful all by themselves, matching their capabilities with a user's intent. You need driving directions? Travel reservations? Takeout? Tickets to a show? Groceries? Tell your phone, it will spare you the ugly links. It will spare you the landing page. It will spare you the ads. It will simply give you what you asked for. This is already happening today, expect it to accelerate.

The future of the web? Now you see it, soon enough you will not. The idea that any of this will take 20 years is the pipe dream of someone who specializes in monetizing the present.

And, Mr. Eliot, to answer your question, we are looking for it, sir. Beyond restaurant recommendations and the kind embrace of total strangers, it is out there. Ms. Mayer's company isn't the only one with an index of the world's information.

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  • A world/web without search would have been unthinkable - except that mobile technology is already showing us what it will be like.

    Great article.

  • Excellent food for thought, thank you James. Now the question is what the marketing folks are going to do in response - they will be desperate trying to find the income source!

  • "Apps are capable of sorting through just the portions of the web you might be interested in. Don't search the web for soccer scores, use an app. Don't search the web for hotel deals, use an app."

    Good point, but you still have to search the right apps for all these tasks. OR you can get an app to find best apps.

  • Apps are definitely proving that people don't want to search, they just want to "do". And whatever it is you may want to do, there's an app for that.

    Awesome article.

  • Your post reminds me a bit of "persistent search" : billburnham.blogs.com/.../persistent_sear.html ... 15% (?) of the intuitive engine in an app that finds the knowledge you seek....

  • I'm still waiting for the flying car!

  • Future is Apps not Search boxes... Right Good article.

  • Great article.

    And I think that there's a more essential question that would people like to live in Google's suggestions ?

    I can't speak for everyone but at least I don't want to do just as a bunch of servers told me.

  • I agree Google isn't the only one with an index of the world's information. Bing has it too, after it copied Google's results.

  • At the OSD Garage Science Fair last week, one presenter said (probably repeating what he heard elsewhere) that Search today, with it's list of 10 blue links, is like a gym membership. Having it isn't enough, since you still have to go there and do all the work for it to make any difference. Perhaps that's the exercise we need to become (mentally) stronger, but then again, maybe we just need to go on a diet... So analogy starts to break down.

    Apps that obviate search can't be the whole answer since most of our smart phones (tablets, PCs, even TVs) have become a sea of apps (and most allow you to search for the installed app you need, or search an app store for the app you are missing). This is still only a thin veneer over the blue links, though certainly better (for some tasks), but it hardly seems like a real solution. Siri? The "Semantic Web?" You hint at the idea in your article, that the app you need volunteers when it realizes it has the knowledge you need, when you need it, and offers it's assistence. And no, I don't want fries (or ads) with that.

    Welcome back James, glad Qi has you working for him.

  • Look who is talking...Whole life you have been trash talking and you find roles to convince companies to hire you. It seems like Google caught you red handed and called out your bluffs..Boy, you got fired from Google !! Can't agree more. Your intelligence is as smart as Ballmer..Good luck James.. God save MS !

  • apps are really change the world i think in future all works need a apps even a wife.

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