Moving Towards a More Segmented Internet
I've been feeling a lot of anxiety about the Web recently and I just figured out why. The iPad, Facebook and the aging platform that is web development are all pointing to big changes for the Internet. Read on for my semi-coherent ramblings.
The iPad has been hugely successful in just a few weeks. I'm holding out for a 3g but I knew from the keynote that it is a "Magical" device. However to me as a web developer the iPad, iPhone and the App Store represent a shift away from technologies I've been specializing in for over a decade. Yes it still has a browser and you can make awesome web apps for the iPhone platform, but in reality the native apps are so much better. This presents a dilemma for me. The notion of developing a app that works on only one platform seems so limiting and constraining to me, but it's so hot right now.
Last night my wife and I were chatting. I was telling her about the Facebook hubub and how I think everyone is blowing it out of proportion. People like Jeffery Zeldman are saying "But most of us, if we think about it, have seen Big Things like this come and go on the web". That's how I want to feel, but as I was talking I could tell that I really felt like this time is different. The fact is that that Facebook has almost 500 million users. There are only 230 million Internet users in the US, and 1.6 billion on the planet. That's 30% of the Net. You can keep saying "I've seen this come and go" but that at some point something is going to stick.
If it does stick it represents a fundamental change in how we interact with the Web. If everyone thinks they need a Facebook account to get around on the Web that means you do too. As a business you need to make sure you're Facebook compatible, just like we bend over for Google Page Rank. Google has been a discovery engine to an existing web of sites. Facebook wants to be the web. This sort of corporate controlled web, however you feel about it, will be rejected by large amounts of Internet users. It already has been.
This left me thinking what's next? What comes after the Web? Until now I couldn't imagine the Web not being the go-to platform for information sharing, communication and entertainment.
When I learned HTML I read HTML4, A Visual Quickstart Guide from the Peachpit Press. HTML4, 13 years ago. HTML5 is only just now looking like we may get to use it sometime soon. IE9 is the big question, and it's still being developed. In other words the fundamental tools we use as web developers are stagnant. Every once in a while we find a gem that's supported by all like Ajax, dragndrop, etc. By and large I feel like the solutions we're coming up with to take it to the next level, while extremely clever, are hackish. We now have 5 browsers to contend with, Firefox, Safari, IE, Chrome and Opera. I can imagine how much of a relief it must be to go to a single platform like iPhone or Android.
All of these things, the Facebook Web, the success of App Stores and the stagnation of web development represent a split in the way people will use the Internet in the future. Computing in general is moving away from a single desktop sitting under your desk to a multitude of devices that have their own specific purpose. Cars are getting Net connections, appliances have WiFi, hell my treadmill has an Ethernet port. As beautiful and elegant as the Web Browser as a single platform is, it's holding us back.
As this story unfolds more segments will be created. More devices, more platforms, more markets. This is a good thing. Niche markets will thrive and individuals will be able to create profitable businesses. But it does mean that I'm probably going to have to learn Objective-C.