Wired Magazine ran a dramatic cover story this September titled “The Web is Dead,” in which Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff voiced the concern that the open Web was becoming colonized by superpowers like Apple and Facebook. Do you go to CNN.com first thing in the morning, or do you check your Facebook account, and click on news items your friends have posted? “Facebook is my only news source,” a friend recently told us proudly. Technology goliaths like Apple make life infinitely more convenient, the authors contend, so we use them more than Web browsers. What’s the big deal? Internet Explorer is a Microsoft product just like Safari and Chrome are Apple and Google babies. But apps for Android and Apple, and walled communities like Facebook are not like browsers: they can and do restrict access to content on the Web.
The death of the Web has been echoed in many circles. Tim Wu has written a book called Master Switch in which he argues that historically, information industries have eventually become consolidated with an oligarchy of powerful players. Telecommunications went through a similar route, and now the Internet is also moving to a stage where just a couple of dominant players will control the entire Web. This means that those little startups we all love to open in our garages will be as impossible as starting your own wireless service is in a world of AT&T and Verizon. (See this great interview with Wu in the New Yorker)
Anderson/Wolff and Wu take different routes to the same end result: access to information and democratization of content production is seriously threatened by ever more powerful companies like Google. Right now, it’s hard to make a convincing case for a universe of closed apps a la Wired magazine, but Wu’s analysis is compelling. Is the colonization of the wide-open World Wide Web inevitable? Not necessarily, says Wu. The government can make an effort to ensure Net Neutrality (equal and identical access to content for every single citizen). Or perhaps a new Internet protocol will be developed that transforms the decades old infrastructure of the Internet into something faster and better. Such a disruption could take us to the original Wild West days of the Internet, with room for everyone to participate, experiment and make money.
Technology Review thinks the disruption is inherent in the Web itself (the layer on top of the Internet). Its cover this month is titled “The Web is Reborn” in a direct rebuttal to the Wired story viewpoint. The cause for hope is HTML5, a new way to build websites and create videos (which will soon become the driver of the most traffic on the Internet according to Cisco). One of the examples they cite is the very impressive and fun interactive video called The Wildnerness Downtown (a must watch) in which a runner appears to run down your home street if you provide your address. “Only HTML5 could have pulled together data, photos, and video so smoothly from multiple sources. The message behind the experiment: the next-generation Web will be more open to artistry.”
Will HTML5 rejuvenate the Web? We’re not sure, but we sure hope so.
Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.