A pause to refresh the Web?
After years of racing, the Web may finally be slowing to breathe.
This giant burst came after a few years of calm that let the Web community sort out its foundations. After the dot-com bust, the Web stopped being a field everyone had to know about. The Browser Wars, when Netscape and Microsoft and others had competed by adding new features to HTML, came to a temporary end as Internet Explorer dominated and stagnation set in. In those years of quiet, web development communities found their technical, architectural, and political values. Ajax emerged from those conversations, as did RESTful models for protocols and shared Web Standards as a concrete goal. Development communities were able to filter the old and set a course that sustained the Web for a decade as interest returned.
While developers certainly complained about the stagnation phase, the last few years of Web technology remind me too much of the Browser Wars period. This time it’s not the browser vendors – though happily there are many of them – creating most of the ruckus. This time the questions come more from the ways we use the Web, the ways we expect to be able to use the Web, and tensions between technical possibilities and dreams of gold.
That may not help enough, though, because technical complexity is only one part of the problem. As happened in the dot-com boom, grasping efforts to monetize the Web threaten its long-term viability. This time even advertisers acknowledge that advertising has become a curse, impairing performance and driving away customers. This time, though, the Web has more (and better networked) competition from a few kinds of walled gardens.
- Native mobile apps keep promising a better world, and customers (at least in the United States) are listening. That’s led at least some groups of Web developers and vendors to think that we need to make the Web more like native. (In many ways this echoes ’90s conversations grousing about why the Web didn’t have the same powers as desktop applications.)
- Facebook is on the Web but not of the Web. While even Facebook’s native applications tend to use a lot of Web technologies, it delivers more to its users by delivering less, an environment where it controls the view.
Slowing down a bit, especially if we can use that time to re-examine the architecture of the Web, feels like a huge win to me. Developers have outpaced even the much faster computers, networks, and browsers that emerged in the past decade.
Recognizing that and adjusting to it may well hurt for a little while, but it doesn’t mean stopping the Web or even standards development. Specs for new situations will continue to appear. Development communities focused on improving the Web still have lots of room to run. I suspect that even Alex Russell’s call for Progressive Apps (article or video), applications that can shift context from a browser tab to a device, remains possible in this slower-moving world. The barrier there isn’t so much the Web technologies as the keepers of the walled gardens he wants to invade.