In tech circles, there has been a lot of sturm und drang this past week over Wired‘s cover article, The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet. It’s an interesting and provocative title, but like many technology pundits before it (and Wired itself, it must be noted), Wired has fallen into the trap of declaring something as so simply to get the scoop. The problem here is that the so in this case, the death of the World Wide Web, is so premature – if it happens at all – as to be laughable. However, the article does make some observations that are useful takeaways for us who are trying to make our content more accessible to the public.
In The Web is Dead, authors Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff point to usage trends and investment in app-based technologies to support their assertion that online visitors are abandoning the Web. They make the distinction that the Web – a series of interconnected documents that people go to in order to sniff out content – is decreasing in popularity in favor if the more generalized Internet – the electronic information superhighway that apps and software plug into. Or, as Anderson (writing about usage) puts it:
This is not a trivial distinction. Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule.
Anderson and Wolff (who is writing about investment) are correct when they claim that there’s a marked increase in development efforts and usage for semiclosed platforms. Things that we couldn’t or wouldn’t do on computers 15 years ago are now fairly commonplace, though not yet ubiquitous. Tasks like watching streaming movies through Netflix, chatting with international friends on Skype, enjoying and sharing music playlists via Pandora or Last.fm, and having real-time document collaboration with physically separated parties didn’t exist then, but they were tasks we performed via other means. Having apps to provide those experiences within our computers and mobile devices has made our lives more streamlined.
But where Anderson trips up is that he fails to take into account that this is not a zero sum game. Of course there is going to be increased adoption of internet-based tools as more of them become available. Every time an entrepreneur invents a new app to consolidate our everyday tasks onto our computers, you’ll see adoption. But that doesn’t mean that users are suddenly going to stop using their browser. In most cases, users are going to add that app to their bookshelf of “tools I use to get stuff done.” I rather like how Jason Fry of the Neiman Journalism Lab put it in his article, The web dies, the hype lives: What Wired left out of its eulogy:
It would have been less compelling but more accurate to say that the web isn’t dying but being joined by a lot of other contact points between the user and the sea of digital information, with points emerging for different settings, situations, and times of day. Sometimes a contact point is a different presentation of the web, and sometimes it’s something else entirely.
I think I’m pretty much the demographic the Wired community is thinking about – mid-30′s, educated, tech-savvy, overloaded with devices. I have an iPhone, a Windows Vista laptop, a desktop Windows XP computer attached to a large television, a Wii, and now an iPad. Taking my own usage patterns as an example, I use the Web on the desktop computer to navigate (on the web) to Netflix to watch streaming movies, or to Pandora to listen to music while cleaning, or to the Lifetime Channel’s website to watch the latest episode of Project Runway. The laptop is where all of my main productivity and online interactions (Facebook, Livejournal, Twitter, Skype, various blogs) are performed. It, along with the Wii, is where I get some gaming done if I have the time. My iPhone is my portable friend, and since I got the iPad, I don’t use it much for browsing, so that’s mostly app-based, using it for navigation, silly little timewaster games, texting, and searching the Web when a question comes up. The iPad won’t take over my laptop, since the office productivity tools I need aren’t as useful there, but I use it a lot as an eBook reader, a browser, a feed reader (via Flipboard and Twitter), a note-taking device, a sketchpad, and to organize some other lifestyle and business management needs.
None of these devices is a threat to another one. I have them all because each one does something different. Likewise with the Web and apps. I’d quite happily keep using the web-based Google Docs if it did everything I need it to do. I really wish I didn’t have to catch up with my friends on Facebook, but that’s where everyone went (away from Livejournal), so that’s where I go. I never had great experiences with RSS readers, so now I get all my museum news from my pals on Twitter. If I want to read or write specific commentary, I go to a blog on that topic, or write my own.
The point is that people choose the tool they need to get the job done. Again, Jason Fry:
It’s also interesting to ask whether users of various devices care — and whether they should. Anderson brings up push technology…
The problem with the first incarnation of push was that the only contact point was the computer screen, meaning information often wasn’t pushed close enough to you, or was being pushed down the same pipe you were trying to use for something else. Now, information is pushed to the web — and to smartphones and tablets and game consoles and social networks and everything else — and push has vanished into the fabric of How Things Are.
There isn’t a zero-sum game between the web and other ways of presenting information to customers — they all have their role in consumers’ lives, and increasingly form a spectrum to be tapped into as people choose.
At any rate, it seems possible that, some day, we’ll be able to use one machine to do all of our Internet-based tasks, but the Web is still too useful to declare its outright demise. Will it happen someday? Maybe, but like every other living organism, I think it will continue to evolve instead. But it means that we also can’t turn our backs on content delivery for the Web or apps (especially those for mobile devices). Make the content ready for both simultaneously, including factoring in production and management methods, and, if you can’t do it yourself, partner with those companies who can help with delivery. Cultural institutions are traditionally not very good at this, but I think it helps to think outside the Web, while recognizing how your users actually use your content.