For the latest doomsday dispatches from the front, catch the September issue of Wired–the lustrous eye-blasting pink one with the Chris Anderson-Michael Wolff grafitti declaring “The Web is Dead.”
Though Wired is the belwether of the nerd-herd, (“whither thou wire us, we will wierd out”), for the real futurist bonanza you should start with Andy Kessler’s arachnoid Grumby, pouncing on the web-weary wanderer with an injection of his pharmic toxin of uproarious wit and invention.
The thrust of the mind-bending but brain-bent Anderson-Wolff pieces is the eclipse of the web by walled content. As conceived by Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web specified the HTML mark-up language for the creation of standard web pages that could be read on a browser on any computer attached to the net. Transmission across the net was accomplished by HTTP (hypertext transport protocol). Berners-Lee was concerned less with the network at layer 3 than with the desktop experience and linkage to other pages.
Coming later was TCP-IP (transport control protocol-Internet protocol) from Bob Kahn and Vin Cerf. These organized the network-addressing URLs and the try, try, again until you get an acknowledgement method of layer 4 TCP.
Anderson’s thesis is that the layers 3 and 4 TCP-IP comprise the Internet and it will continue to thrive while Berners Lee’s Web will continue to wane with the rise of the new off-web networks and video streams.
For evidence, Anderson opens his article with a chart showing video in 2010 as 51% of the net, peer-to-peer (also mostly video) as 23%, “Other” at 3%, and the “Web” down to a mere moribund 23%, with mostly textual email dwindling to negligibility as a traffic source. Anderson and Wolff claim that these numbers mean some kind of revolutionary “Death of the Web”, which is now measured at less than a quarter of the bits and “shrinking”.
But in fact the Web is far from shrinking; it is growing massively. All the Wired numbers actually portend is the death of television, with video moving onto the net from the old broadcast channels and thus diminishing the Web as a share of the total. The Web meanwhile is more dominant than ever in the information economy, regardless of whether it is accessed by a browser or by various pushy special purpose apps (which function much as your favorites list on a browser).
Also going, going, gone, so they say, is the Google empire with its open sesame search and insecure swampfest of YouTube, its long queues of tedious ads, its often thin gruel of profits outside Google Corporation advertizing revenue, and its compost heaps of wikiware, crawlspace, and semi-pilfered “News,” books, and bimbos, all blithely “free”.
“Free?” says Anderson, that’s so then, like HTML, HTTP, and even presumably Anderson’s own last book by that title. (Chris, I always wondered how that “free” stuff would work for you at Conde-Nast).
What’s now is the Wired new world of freemiums (giveaway gotchas), together with paid subscriptions, paid apps, windmills, and XML (the standard data markup language). Just joking about the windmills, though Wired and Google aren’t. But in the articles no one explains how browser friendly XML, near kin after all to HTML and ubiquitous across the web is somehow a post web avatar.
But let it pass. Hot stuff on the new now Wired off-web are sites like Pandora programmable music and Twitter text tweets, and humongous new imperial force is Facebook, where 500 million virtual souls live and link and poke lost loves and beget billionaires on Farmville. Video from Netflix, Roku and Tivo is said to blow away our browser, and the iPad is assumed to be way more now than the dim web streams on our homely Dell lap or HP netbook. All these non-web video flows are seen as relegating Berners Lee’s invention to the trash bins of digital history.
May I be so bold as to contradict my old friends at Wired? I would suggest that they have the picture wildly upside down. What is dying is not the Web but television and the Internet. The onrush of video bits as a share of traffic is irrelevant to the prospects of the web, which is measured not by bulk traffic but by information entropy: by impressions, transactions, and servers. The video flood, however, is deadly to the Internet with its ungainly TCP aks-naks, buffers and security patches, multi-layered latency and dropped links. It is the Internet that must die as a result of the dominance of video traffic.
Video will kill the cumbrous, porous seven layer Internet model just as the rise of voice killed the old best efforts, asynchronous, non-deterministic telegraph network. As my friend Henry Gau ingeniously explains, the rise of voice communications with their needs for deterministic synchrony required a new Bell infrastructure to replace the old Western Union tap-tap. Similarly video’s needs for deterministic synchronous delivery precisely parallel the previous demands of voice streams when they became the prevailing form of traffic early in the last century with the rise of telephony.
Who will build this network remains in question but the floods of video all the way down from the server through the living room to the desktop to the handset cannot be handled by some Microsoft, Symantec, or Cisco patch on the old Internet.
As for Google, its goofier-than-Gore postures against life giving CO2 and bizarre drive for a network neutrality litigation carnival in Washington make it easy to make fun of. But contrary to all Wolff and Anderson’s disparagement of the company and its allegedly obsolescent open Web model, Google is becoming more central than ever to the new era and is emphatically on the right side in the wars over the future of the Internet.
While Wired touts the end of the Web, Google is unleashing a program to mash all TV and other video onto the Web. It is producing ingenious end-of-TV software that transforms any Android or iPhone into a Web browser remote control for capacious big screens or even uses the Android or iPhone screens themselves (and soon their onboard projectors). Its new Native Client software, already manifest in its Chrome browser and coming OS, trumps Apple’s Objective C language (Jobs’ mandatory apps legacy from his old NeXt machine), that Wired trumpets a super now force on wireless phones. Thus Google promises to fulfill at last my Life After Television dream of a teleputer in every pocket (or bioslot), with access not to a hundred channels but to a 100 million interactive sites on any display.
At the same time, Facebook, a Website with no significant new technology, does not “control” the future as Wired imagines. Like AOL, MySpace, and Twitter, it will have its day in the sun before falling into the gap between a social playground and a commercial hustle.
The death of the Web? Apple uber alles? Giant monopolies closing off the world in a cutesy Farmville cartoon garden? That’s Weirdsville.
The flood of video will indeed require a simpler, synchronous, secure and deterministic replacement for the current Internet. But the Web will thrive for decades to come and if Google can break away from its silly medieval green politics, it may well lead the Web’s victory parade.