The End of the Web

At the risk of being typecast as a kooky prophet of doom, I’m going to make another prediction that should prove to be about as popular as my last. Say goodbye to the World Wide Web. Sorry Sir Tim, it was great while it lasted, but it just couldn’t stand the test of time.

Pish, you say. The web is the single greatest invention of all time. It has revolutionized everything from commerce, to government, to news gathering, to communications. It has changed the way we learn, the way we speak, the way we interact with each other. The web has created entirely new ways of thinking about the world around us. The web may have even ushered us into a post-human existence; external evolution at the speed of technology. All of this is true and more. I personally think it’s impossible to overstate the magnitude of change this invention has wrought upon us. And yet… ten years from now, December 20, 2020, the World Wide Web will be akin to AOL today. Sure, you’re Great Aunt in Peoria still uses it, but if her browser opens to a blank page, she thinks the internet is down. Ah! And therein lies the key. The browser. It’s the browser that is going away and with it the web.

I believe the beginning of the end came in late 2001 with the release of a Mac OS application by Karelia Software called Watson. Watson was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. (OK, I was young and easily impressed, but it was really cool.) Watson gathered information directly from websites and presented it in a simple, easy to read format without requiring me to open a browser and dig through a web page. I could easily track Ebay auctions, buy from Amazon, or check movie listing and recipes all from within the Watson interface. Granted, the web wasn’t then what it is today, but for my money (and it did cost money), Watson was hands down a better interactive experience than using the web. It provided just the information I needed, without distractions, and in a format that I could easily navigate. And that’s why Watson, and Dan Wood, owner and lead developer of Karelia Software, are the household names they… are… today. Oh, I forgot. It didn’t happen that way.

Watson was designed to be a companion application to the Mac OS search program called Sherlock, hence the name (please tell me I don’t need to explain that further). At the end of 2002 there was a minor scandal in the Mac community when the new version of Sherlock was released and it incorporated plugins that provided much of the functionality previously found in Watson. Watson hung on for a few years, but Dan finally gave in to the all powerful Jobs and retired Watson in 2004. And that’s why Sherlock is the universal application that everyone… No, unless you were a power Mac user in the early 2000s you’ve probably never heard of Sherlock either. Within a few years even Sherlock development had ended. The web had moved on, there were much better Web 2.0 interfaces and they now had video! The web-appliance concept seemed doomed to the dustbin of history.

Until, July 11th, 2008, when Mr. Jobs triumphantly revealed the return of Sherlock in the guise of the iPhone App Store. Suddenly, the development world was all about web appliances. Stand alone apps that gave you instant and easy access to just the information you wanted without the need to log in every time and search for what you want. Just click on the icon and boom, there it is. Access to all the information without all the headache of a browser, which is ideal for a small mobile screen. Next month, however, Mr. Jobs is releasing the Mac App Store, basically the same concept as the iPhone App Store, but for Desktop Mac Apps. There has been a lot of speculation as to what kind of software will be available on the Mac App Store, and why developers will want to go through Apple for distribution, and share a large percentage of profits, when they can still go directly to the consumer. Presumably, you will still be able to install any compatible software on a Mac after the App Store is opened, unlike iOS. But the naysayers are again missing the point. It’s the “Mac App Store”, not the "Macintosh Software Depot". It will do great business in games, utilities and simple apps. There will be some productivity apps, most notably Apple’s own office suite, but the Mac App Store will bring the App experience from the mobile handset to the desktop in a way that Dan Wood could only dream about in 2001. Mark my words, the App will kill the browser, just like video killed the radio star. In 10 years, your Great Aunt will still access FaceTwitterBook via her AOL browser, and you will laugh at how quaint she is as you fire up the FaceTwitterBook App on your ARI (Apple Retinal Implant, pat. pend. Steve, call me.)

So here’s to Dan Wood, owner and lead developer of Karelia Software, the Killer of the Web, the Bane of Berners-Lee, and may I be the first to say it, the Father of the App!

The question is not whether or not you need to develop an App, but rather, why haven’t you already hired Dan to do it for you?

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John Robinson said...

Ryan, definitely an interesting post. So often I'm faced with a task that I just want an easy answer to (weather, store hours, ect.) and apps are increasingly becoming the solution.

Dave Winer has been writing on this trend of the simplification of the web for a while now and I added my own take on our blog a few month back. http://blog.joyspoon.com/2010/06/is-the-web-too-cluttered/

Have you looked at projects like Today's Guardian by Phil Gyford or Arc90's Readability plug-in? They seem to offer the best of both worlds right now. Simplicity in the browser.

I think the only true resistance you're going to see from this argument is pertaining to links between apps. In your example, what happens when you want to visit a page that's outside of Watson? An example might be a product page on a corporate website linked to from inside the eBay app. Anyways, definitely interested to see the innovation which comes out of the Mac Apps Store.

Ryan McClead said...

John, thanks for the comment. Im not familar with the projects you recommended, but I will check them out. I think the data wlll still exist on the Internet in XML and rss feeds, or whatever technology replaces them. But it will be reconfigured and reformatted by the app you use to access it. A great current example is Flipboard for iPad. All the data in an easy to read format, no browser necessary. Though whe you dig down through the app to the original material, it presents a browser like window. Another good example is Amazon Windowshop on iPad. I did all of my Christmas shopping in that app. I had full access to reviews, videos and product descriptions and never opened the browser.

Ron Friedmann said...

The installed base is powerful. Think about QWERTY keyboard.

Also, what goes round comes round. We thought mainframe was dead, well it's back (sort of) as the cloud. Browsers at least can improve in ways mainframe could not.

Ryan McClead said...

It's probably really bad form to be the most frequent commenter on my own posts, but I just saw this and I think it's relevant:

It was published a few days before I wrote this, but I think it's clear Flipboard sees itself much as I describe.

Jamie Clark said...

We may be worrying way too much about the app thing. If the data is available in true, vendor-neutral, open standards form, then some people will prefer pre-chewed front ends; and others will want a mashup-able browser interface. Which won't look much like today's, anyway. (Compare UIUC Mosaic to iPad mini Opera.)

As long as data sources faithfully provide #opendata, and there is a neutral consensus display format option (HTML), what's the problem with the Flipboard, Silverlight, Tweetdeck, DITA, QQ and RDFa guys knocking themselves out, competing on cool and useful presentations? That's not ending the web, that's evolving it.

I'd rather that we concentrate on a manageable, short set of deliverables -- like the baseline policy imperative for the data to be out there, in standard form, where APIs can get at it.

Sharun said...

The browser is an app. To say apps will kill the web is like saying toasters will kill the electric grid.


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