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Debating the death of the Web

Wired's Chris Anderson argues that the Web is "dead." While that may not be entirely true yet, it's certainly true that it is shifting into a new phase that will make it quite different to use than we're used to.

Wired Magazine

Earlier this year, prior to my talk at The Next Web conference in Amsterdam, I wrote a guest article on TNW's Web site titled "The Death of the Web Browser." Intentionally hyperbolic, it looked at how we increasingly get more of our Web content through something other than a Web browser--a smartphone app, desktop apps that embed Web-based content into them, and so on--and we can foresee the day coming fairly soon where the browser will be the minority means of accessing the Web. My Next Web talk extended that idea in more detail, in particular looking at how the Web is getting comingled with physical objects, creating what I call "Webjects." As you'll see in the comments on my TNW article, I was widely pilloried for the idea of the browser coming to an eventual end, or at least drastically reduced role.

Now in the current issue of Wired, no less than Chris Anderson makes much the same argument, arguing not just that the Web browser is dead but that the whole Web is dead. The Internet is simply the platform, and there are many ways to access, of which the Web browser is just one, and in many cases the least convenient. Ease of use is driving people to use specialized apps and devices to access the internet, rather than the "Swiss Army knife" (as I called it) Web browser, which is a fine general-purpose tool but not good enough for a lot of things.

Anderson writes:

"The Web is, after all, just one of many applications that exist on the Internet, which uses the IP and TCP protocols to move packets around. This architecture--not the specific applications built on top of it--is the revolution. Today the content you see in your browser--largely HTML data delivered via the http protocol on port 80--accounts for less than a quarter of the traffic on the Internet...and it's shrinking.

"And the shift is only accelerating. Within five years, Morgan Stanley projects, the number of users accessing the Net from mobile devices will surpass the number who access it from PCs. Because the screens are smaller, such mobile traffic tends to be driven by specialty software, mostly apps, designed for a single purpose. For the sake of the optimized experience on mobile devices, users forgo the general-purpose browser. They use the Net, but not the Web. Fast beats flexible."

While Anderson focuses on how closed proprietary systems built on the open architecture of the Web are attractive to customers because of ease and speed, Michael Wolff discusses alongside the article how business interests also prefer the closed, integrated systems. Open systems are not consistent enough in how they deliver audiences for advertisers and subscribers, and, he argues, because online audiences are so much less valuable and consistent than historical offline ones (for TV, magazines, and so on) this leads to a revenue gap that companies are desperate to close.

Where this leads, Anderson and Wolff argue, is a recentralization of power back into the hands of large conglomerates--the ones who can aggregate the audiences, and create the large multi-screen, multidevice ecosystems to keep them engaged.

"This development--a familiar historical march, both feudal and corporate, in which the less powerful are sapped of their reason for being by the better resourced, organized, and efficient--is perhaps the rudest shock possible to the leveled, porous, low-barrier-to-entry ethos of the Internet Age. After all, this is a battle that seemed fought and won--not just toppling newspapers and music labels but also AOL and Prodigy and anyone who built a business on the idea that a curated experience would beat out the flexibility and freedom of the Web."

Are we on an inevitable path back to an online world like AOL of yore? Unlikely I think, but it's clear that the wild and woolly adolescence of the Web is coming to an end, and that the next stage of maturity--cleaned up like a teenager going for his first job interview and ready for the business world--is upon us.

Read more of the Wired article, and the point-counterpoint between Anderson and Tim O'Reilly.