Does the rise of Facebook portend the end of the real world, the collapse of dictatorships, the fall of Google, and the rise of love and peace and network neutrality?
Do smart pods and pads and Edenic walled social networks mean the end of the Web?
From Money, Fortune, the Economist, and Technology Review to a galore of blogs and newsletters, pundits predict the collapse of the web. Last September, Wired put it all together behind a lustrous eye-blasting pink cover, with Chris Anderson-Michael Wolff grafitti declaring “The Web is Dead.” Many see Facebook, Twitter, and Apple’s mediacopia as bringing about the decline and fall of Google, the outbreak of world revolution, or the revival of the U.S. economy of innovation.
As an extension of policy based networking tools from the enterprise to the dating scene, Facebook has no security to speak of, and no significant new technology. Yet it is treated as both an answer to the decline of the U.S. economy of innovation and a threat to the existing networking industry. Twitter is seen as a threat to mullahs in Iran and on American TV news. Apple’s mobile pods and pads are said to portend an end to the old worldwide web and the ascent of fire-walled gardens of delightful earthly aps.
The nub of such mindbending but brain-bent observations is the eclipse of the web by walled content, which is media “controlled” by one menacing company, like Apple or Comcast or Newscorp. As conceived by Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web, by contrast, was open to all. At CERN in Geneva, the Web inventor 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 that delivered the bits and bytes on what is called “layer 3” than with the desktop experience and linkage to other pages.
Distinguished from Berners Lee’s “Web” is what we call the Internet: 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 TCP.
The thesis of most of the doomday prophets is that the layers 4 and 3 TCP-IP comprise the Internet and it will continue to thrive, but Berners Lee’s Web will wither and die with the rise of the new off-web networks and video streams popularized by Apple iTunes and such rivals as Tivo, Netflix, and Facebook.
For evidence, Wired offered a representative chart showing video in 2010 as 51% of the net, peer-to-peer (also mostly video) as 23%, “Other” at 3%, with the “Web” down to a mere moribund 23%, and it dominated by Google’s Youtube streams. To the prophets of doom all this represents a 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 dire 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 email program or your favorites list on a browser).
Going, going, gone with the Web, 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 and ever diminishing “crawlspace.” Slipping away from its grip onto the new social nets also are its semi-pilfered “News,” books, and pseudo-pimped bimbos, all blithely “free”.
“Free?” says Wired’s Anderson, that’s so then, like HTML, HTTP, and even presumably Anderson’s own last book by that title. (I always wondered how that “free” stuff would work for Chris at Conde-Nast.)
What’s now, so they say, is the new world of freemiums (giveaway gotchas and “Groupons”), together with paid subscriptions, paid apps, high speed trains, windmills, and XML (the standard data markup language). Just joking about the trains and 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 portent.
But let it pass. Hot stuff on the new off-web are music sites like Pandora and Spotify and Twitter text tweets, and the humongous new imperial force is Facebook, where 600 million virtual souls live and link and poke lost loves and beget billionaires on Farmville and now Cityville as well. 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 Web and crawling Google arachnids to the trash bins of digital history.
But this analysis has the picture wildly upside down. What is dying is not the Web but conventional 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 piled up and pop up 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 a constant flow of 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, McAfee-Intel or Cisco set of patches on the old Internet.
As for Google, it invites ridicule by its goofier-than-Gore postures against life giving CO2 and a strange lust for network neutrality litigation follies in Washington. But contrary to all the disparagement of the company and its allegedly obsolescent open Web model, Google is becoming more central than ever to the new era. Its prowess in cloud-based search represents a real technological edge that grows as the net expands. Google is emphatically on the right side in the wars over the future of the Internet.
In the face of pundits touting the end of the Web, Google is unleashing a program to mash all TV and other video onto the Web. It now offers 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 beta OS, trumps Apple’s Objective C language (Jobs’ mandatory apps legacy from his old NeXt machine) that Wired, for example, trumpets as a super now and future force on smartphones. Thus Google promises to fulfill at last my Life After Television (1991) 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 the prophets imagine. 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 rule of the new web is that no one will watch any ads that he does not want to see. Crucial to the business prospects of the emerging web will be development of a standard model of security, probably based on trusted platform module (TPM) vault chips and software currently spreading through the domains of enterprise personal computers and moving toward mobile. Ultimately, as with every other web fashionplate and netTwit mob scene, the future of Facebook depends on the ingenuity of engineers concocting faster optoelectronic interfaces, new network architectures, and fiberspeed channels around the world.
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 and wireless will indeed require a simpler, synchronous, secure and deterministic replacement for the current Internet. As computers in new miniaturized disguises leave the building and its firewalls, the new net will banish the old LAN and its security folderol. At LAN’s end will emerge a closer more deterministic integration of the physical layers of wavelength division muxing with wireless software defined adaptable radios and with the networking and secure session layers above.
This new network will be engineered by thousands of real innovators in optics and electronics and it will be funded by capital rich leviathans such as ATT, Verizon, Comcast and even Google if Washington refrains from capping and trading the Internet. But the Web itself 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.