According to Wired magazine’s latest bit of luscious linkbait, The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet.
There’s a certain amusement value to a print magazine making this shocking announcement (print has been “dead” for at least a decade). But let’s face it, not even Wired takes its announcement too seriously. Sure, it would love you to spend a few pounds/dollars on a Wired app, but in the meantime, Wired is in no danger of closing down its own very large website with its Product Reviews section, video channels and unlucky 13 blogs.
The fact is, Wired is desperately keen on announcing anything that sounds like a Paradigm Shift, which means The World Has Changed and You’d Better Pay Attention.
One of its most famous (or notorious) efforts was Push! Kiss your browser goodbye: The radical future of media beyond the Web, way back in 1997. More recently we’ve had The Long Tail, which told us to forget big hits because “the future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream,” and The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.
All of these stories generated healthy debate, before every sensible person concluded that Wired was interesting but wrong. The current Web is Dead story fits the pattern.
Obviously, Wired’s story does have a point, though it’s a very superficial one. The point, illustrated in a graph based on Cisco data, is that the proportion of web traffic on the internet has declined relative to the growth of peer-to-peer data and video traffic. But I doubt whether this would come as a surprise to even Wired’s dimmest readers. People who sit around watching YouTube while downloading pirate copies of movies consume multiple gigabytes of bandwidth, unfortunately. People reading newspapers and blog posts consume very few kilobytes. This isn’t rocket science.
Wired made this obvious truism into an earth-shattering cover story by doing three things.
First, its lead illustration is proportional, which makes it look as though web traffic has declined. It hasn’t. Web use has grown dramatically. The real usage numbers show no sign that the web is dying, let alone dead.
Second, Wired is divvying up the data in ways that I think are fundamentally misleading. For example, if someone is sitting at home watching YouTube videos, then they are using the web. Not all video traffic is web traffic, but a lot of it is.
Third, the web’s huge success is based not just on web traffic but on providing a user-friendly front end to everything else on the internet -- which is why so many ordinary users think the internet is the web. There was a time, in the early 1990s, when I always used different applications for internet access, including email, FTP, and IRC (Internet Relay Chat). There were also different bits of software for various online services including Prestel, CompuServe and AOL. But pretty soon, the world changed so that you could do everything via a web browser, if you wanted to. The fact is that today, these non-web things work as adjuncts to the web, and they wouldn’t be so successful if they didn’t.
Wired’s perfectly reasonable point is that a lot of things that most people used to do on the web, some of them now do via apps. Perhaps it should argue that a great deal of the “cloud computing” hype is ridiculous, then? No, it’s actually puffing the relatively feeble apps currently used on smartphones. The story says:
“Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule. And it’s the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen). The fact that it’s easier for companies to make money on these platforms only cements the trend.”
It’s certainly true that this is a growing market, but that's old news. It’s also true that PCs running Microsoft Windows still outsell smartphones by a wide margin, and Windows PC users are much more prolific browser users than smartphone users are (because Symbian and RIM between them have 60% of the smartphone market). Sure, we all know what the trends are, but even being as kind to Wired as possible, a more realistic headline would have been: “The Web Might Be A Bit Less Important To More People In About 5 or 10 Years.”
Then again, that might not be true either. The fact is that “apps” are just like Wap (rhymes with “crap”) and have the same function: they take the real web and try to make it easier to consume on devices that have limited memory and processing power, poor (if any) multitasking, and very small screens. Apps are an expensive, limiting, and probably temporary compromise.
Rather than the web being dead, it’s just as likely that improvements in browsers over the next 5-10 years, the arrival of working HTML5, and dramatic advances in the capabilities of mobile phones will make “apps” irrelevant. A cover story that said “Apps Are Dead” would have made just as much sense as “The Web Is Dead” -- ie not very much sense at all.
Perhaps that story is already scheduled for next year….