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.

The Growing Queue at the IT Morgue

The Growing Queue at the IT Morgue

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“Wired” – a name better suited for a Starbuck’s employee newsletter than a magazine about technology – declared “the web is dead.” The irony of a magazine unable to foresee Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or cellular killing off the medium on which it now publishes seems too compelling to ignore. Sure enough, since that nearly two year old claim the evidence that the web is dying has mounted.

Joining wires and the web on the list of endangered species:

Search: I’ve already voiced my discontent with the whole search space. Its general user unfriendliness (Google offers six 50 minute classes to help users master it) isn’t its worst problem. It’s an outdated technology based on a web that no longer exists. A web of interconnected machines serving content to users’ desktops is long gone. Web servers have fled the confines of homes and businesses and congregated into data centers where raw information can be collected and analyzed in bulk, i.e., turned into actual knowledge. It seems both Google (at almost two-thirds search market share) and Bing (at almost the rest) have made moves heralding the beginning of the end of this once useful technology.

For its part, Google has taken the drastic step of mixing its famously relevant web search results with infamously irrelevant information from its social network Google+. But watering down search results was only the first step toward relegating them entirely. Recently, Google further pushed web search results down the hierarchy by including better information from their “knowledge graph.” Such mucking around with their bread-and-butter can only mean that even Google sees the writing on the wall: this is the beginning of the end of search. Information from the open web is less valuable now than it has ever been.

Bing is also making search results share space on its results page by serving up three separate columns of information it labels: web knows (classic, unpolluted search results), Bing knows (structured entity information from its own knowledge store) and people know (results from actual social networks Facebook, Twitter, et al).

Search once occupied a mansion of its own. Now it has woken up to the joys of shared living space. How much longer until it is out on the street entirely?

Browsers: The browser wars are long past, the ground they fought over forgotten. The newer a device is to the connected world (phones, tablets, televisions, DVD players, etc.) the less valuable a web browser is to the user experience. Even Google, who depend on browsers almost exclusively for their income, is only now getting around to porting Chrome to Android. Their lack of urgency to create a mobile browser while simultaneous building an entire laptop around the Chrome desktop browser (Chromebook) is a clear signal that mobile browsers aren’t important. Web browsers are your grandfather’s way of getting online.

Keyboards and Mice: These input devices lost their wires first and now are being bypassed completely by voice technology for phones, Xbox consoles and video games and gestures on the Kinect and tablet computers. Beyond the obvious rejoicing of carpal tunnel and tendinitis sufferers, these natural user interfaces offer key advantages. Who wouldn’t prefer saying “How many goals did Pele score for Brazil” than typing it on the itty bitty mobile keyboard or suffering the click-through it would take to get an answer on FIFA.com?

But voice and gesture are only replacements for physical keyboards and mice. And, let’s be honest, voice technology is a finicky medium. Voice: the UI of the future … since 1994. Automatically deciphering user intent can make the need for any input mechanism moot. Temporal, location, calendar and history signals can prompt automatic action by a user’s device void of any repetitive stress injury or an automated assistant no smarter than a garden gnome. Interfaces are both going natural and becoming moot simultaneously.

Web companies and their sympathizers do have some compelling arguments that the web is still alive and kicking. For one, apps have a higher cost of entry. It’s cheaper and easier to deploy content to the web and slap a few ads on it than to surface it in an app where you have to worry about updates and an installed base. It’s no wonder the web is a sloppy, ugly and disorganized place. Why bother with beauty when ugly can be so easily monetized? For another, Facebook and other popular sites generate most of their traffic on the web. But lack of a compelling mobile story for popular websites is not much of an argument for the web. Finally, some claim that indexing-friendly HTML 5 will bring web apps up to par with native apps and thus narrow the gap. Maybe, but this seems more like an argument that the web is giving in to apps than vice-versa.

This queue building at the IT morgue changes things. For one, hardware and user-experience companies like Apple, who make their money selling products and apps, are more valuable than web companies like Google who make their money advertising web content. This value gap is only going to get wider. As the web recedes into the background, the opportunity shifts from making money on ads to providing actual value to users monetized through direct sales and subscriptions. Devices and data centers are the future and it is a very compelling future.

I will grant one thing, the web is not yet ready for the embalmer. Apps of this generation will still be built on top of information extracted from the web. Browsers will share this undead future as long as the web lasts. However, as Google and Microsoft continue to add structure to the information once scattered over the web, the world’s information is moving closer to how people think of the world rather than the way a computer represents it. It also means that apps can discover, ingest and display information in ways that are much more meaningful. The way, for example, Flipboard presents news or the Xbox presents entertainment, is a much better experience – particularly for a keyboard-less device – than a tendonitis inducing type/scroll/click/repeat browser. Having information come to you, instead of vice-versa, is the next web.

This puts data front and center in the next web. Owners of data, curators of data and acquirers of data … these are the people fueling the next web and the people who will profit from it. The ability to generate, curate, conflate, analyze and otherwise make valuable the data people need the most will make up next generation careers. Having the coding skills to make that data available in pleasingly packaged apps will be immensely profitable.

Today apps have beaten the web into submission, but apps beware…the world is quickly becoming hostile to your existence as well. Apps suffer from the desktop-esque problems of legacy. Apps must be installed and patches pushed to devices the same way service packs were pushed to desktop and server apps over the past couple of decades creating multi-versioning issues and other legacy problems.

The truth of the matter is that apps aren’t necessary either. Users want answers, not apps. They want tasks to be completed and actions to be performed that help them live their lives. Installing and using apps is a means to an end. Ultimately agents working on behalf of users will be able to use both native device capabilities and remote services to perform many functions now served by apps. Witness on{x}, a technology from Bing that allows devices to perform actions without an associated app. Between devices with built-in capabilities and data centers with directly-servable content, apps too face an uncertain future.

The great circle of IT life continues.

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  • How about that little thing called 'privacy'? Ironically, I have more privacy on the desktop/laptop with a browser, thanks to FireFox and many addons, than I do on a mobile device with an app.

  • Great post! We used to search for the unstructured information itself in the unstructured web. Now we have to search for all these special apps that can surface each specific type of information/knowledge more effectively... There has to be a better way...

  • So, your conclusion is that Siri and Google Now are the future?

    Ed: So much for trying to get people to use their imagination. There is more to the future than what you see in front of you.

  • Apple and Google are building personal assistants for their own ecosystems. If they ever involve third party devs, it will be as an afterthought and they will hide the best funcationality for their exclusive use. James, please convince Microsoft to do this right. The future in all this is in an inclusive ecosystem for developers. From speech to knowledge and all the things you mention in this post, none of them are any good unless they are open to all apps and that means DEVELOPERS.

  • So if I get you right, James, the goal of this blog is to bullish Google, isn't it?

    Any news about Microsoft's plans? Just compare in your tag cloud the sizes of Google and Microsoft tags. At least it's consistent with the relevance that both companies have today in search and mobility.

    Good job, softies. Keep on.

  • Hey, my TRS 80 Model 1 had a voice box.

    Since 1978.

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