Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Reflections on the End of the World Wide Web and the Future of the Internet as an Information/Service Resource

[This post is in an essay written in preparation for the December 10, 2010, Episode 16 of "Law Librarian Conversations," a podcast about all things law library.... This week's podcast with guests Tom Boone, Reference Librarian, Loyola Law School; Jason Wilson, Vice President Jones McClure Publishing; Ed Walters, CEO, Fastcase.

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Title: LawLibCon 16 - Future of Interface Design (12/10/2010)
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I've been fascinated recently by a new trend in consumer use of the internet.

The internet itself has remained pretty stable as a continuing backbone for the electronic exchange of information. It has been surprisingly robust and scalable. Embarrassingly, I was one of those people who, in the early 1990's was predicting that the internet would soon break from the volume of usage as it spread from academic to commercial users. At the time, it seemed that as usage - especially, graphical intense usage - would fill the capacity of routers and cables of our national infrastructure. Surprise, surprise. Hardware manufacturers and ISPs have somehow figured out to meet the demand. (And have they ever….)

But while the internet backbone has scaled up and provided one and all with (potential) capacity for the mammoth amounts of bandwidth. A well wired home could (does?) have a wireless access point that supports at least ten simultaneous devices on the same router at speed and capacity to allow all ten users to stream music while surfing the web with several tabs open.

So the internet itself supports surprisingly intense usage. But the people who make money on the sale of this usage are the ISPs. What about the information providers who provide the information or services that consumers use? In order for content and service providers to make money for their information or services, they need two things: Unique, high quality information or services, and, eyeballs. Service or information providers either make money on the information that they sell to users, or they give their information or services away for free and sell advertising to others. This much is obvious. It's also the great challenge of being in business on the internet.

Either way, the vendor has a vested interest in holding the users' attention as long as possible. One way that they are doing that is by creating new "platforms" for access to, or usage of information or services available on the internet. If you think about it, this basic concept underlies nearly all recent developments in cyber-business. The creation of the iOS and its use of apps to access the internet was one of the very first examples of a way to lure users away from the wide-open world wide web and into a world where use of the internet was now carried out completely from within an application. This provided us with excellent, robust access to and usage of the information or services, while at the same time, keeping us in that very location for focused, discreet periods of time.

But as Mobile Safari began to become a major source of internet activity, other service and information providers began to see the potential for customized, focused internet experience. Google keeps developing more and more products and services and makes them available for free to all-comers - and yet makes billions. And they make that money without ever sending you a bill! The strategy is simple, get users to click into the world of Google for search, mail, documents, RSS feeds, phone, etc.; And keep them there! Google is striving to extend their reach even further by developing its mobile platform, Android and its forthcoming operating system, ChromeOS. Once in the Google world, a user will be able to stay in that world. FaceBook, too, making plays to become the one-stop source of all your internet life and activity.

Developments such as these may ultimately serve to make the intent a series of walled gardens where users can't easily move from one application or platform at will, at least not easily. Examples of how fine these walled gardens have become can be seen in two recent announcements of publishing ventures which have begun entirely as applications on the iPad. For example, Rupert Murdoch's announcement of the creation of an iPad based newspaper called "The Daily," and Richard Branson's new magazine called, "Project." The Daily isn't yet released (as of this writing) but Project is. And it is stunning in nearly every respect. It's beautiful, packed with features and utility. But it is limited in one important respect.

Even if I wanted to share with you the wonderful cover story in Project, I couldn't. First off, there is no URL. Second, even if I could, somehow send you a link to the article, because Project was developed on an app built especially for the iPad, you need one in order to view it. And there's no end in sight. Such applications are bound to appear in all major platforms.

The irony is that well-executed applications provide outstanding experience for the user and many people prefer the experience of browsing Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds and databases through available apps over accessing the same information with a browser.

What's a developer to do? The hope, from a user's point of view is that developers will focus their efforts on building good services and databases and make them available on every available platform. It is also important for a new system of link locators be developed so that links from within a ChromeOS application will be able to find the same article or information in an iOS application or from within a browser.

Such challenges are so subtle and nuanced as to be nearly invisible today. Tomorrow they may well be extreme obstacles for cross-platform use and may make today's successful platform the preferred one for distribution of tomorrow's information and services….

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