The reality of virtual reality

In Oslo air­port last month I saw this table dis­play in an elec­tron­ics shop. “Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty starts here”, it says. Two VR devices were offered for sale: the Sam­sung Gear VR, and a smart­phone-based unit by Homi­do, which was sell­ing for 699 NOK (about £63, although it would have been cheap­er then, pre-Brex­it ref­er­en­dum).

The pre­vi­ous month in Green­wich Mar­ket, here in Lon­don, I saw a stall sell­ing robust, own-brand­ed Google Card­board units. They were about £12, I recall. I saw a few peo­ple try them and look quite impressed.

These are two small signs of vir­tu­al real­i­ty break­ing into the main­stream. Or, at least, try­ing to; because right now it’s uncer­tain whether VR can ful­ly make that step.

I should state up front that I’m a fan of VR. I’m excit­ed to see it become com­modi­tised, to visu­alise the pos­si­bil­i­ties inher­ent in what Kevin Kel­ly calls the “inter­net of expe­ri­ences”. It’s real­ly excit­ing to watch people’s reac­tions as they try VR for the first time.

But there’s a real pos­si­bil­i­ty that VR doesn’t have last­ing val­ue beyond that ini­tial reac­tion. The risk is that VR head­sets fol­low the pat­tern of the Nin­ten­do Wii: hailed as a break­through main­stream device, huge ini­tial pub­lic impact, then slow­ly aban­doned over time as inter­est wanes, left to only the hard­core gamers.

It’s hard to gauge the pub­lic inter­est in VR. In tech and adver­tis­ing cir­cles it’s receiv­ing a lot of atten­tion, we know it’s an area that the major play­ers are into: Google, Face­book, Sam­sung, HTC, and Twit­ter all have VR teams, and you can bet that Apple are inves­ti­gat­ing it secret­ly too. But in terms of con­sumer demand?

We should know more about sales by the end of the year: between now and Christ­mas we should see the Ocu­lus Rift start to ship at scale, as well as the cheap­er and more acces­si­ble Sony Playsta­tion VR. The first devices to meet Google’s Day­dream stan­dard should also become avail­able in that time. What we know for now is that a recent esti­mate puts Vive sales at around 100,000; not bad, but not stun­ning. The Gear VR could ship an esti­mat­ed 10 mil­lion units by the end of 2016, as they’re giv­ing away the head­set with their new phones in many mar­kets.

But even if the non-gam­ing pub­lic have access to a head­set, will they want to use it? Or re-use it? We don’t know. We can be sure it won’t be for lack of effort from man­u­fac­tur­ers and con­tent pro­duc­ers; there are some real­ly smart peo­ple and teams out there con­sid­er­ing VR as a dis­tinct art form and exper­i­ment­ing to find new ways to tell sto­ries in it.

But I have one major prob­lem with VR: it iso­lates. It’s typ­i­cal of the ‘soft­ware above the lev­el of a sin­gle per­son’ prob­lem: it’s not built for peo­ple who live in groups. For me to use VR at home I have to block out my wife entire­ly. In any oth­er leisure activ­i­ty we do at home, even when read­ing, watch­ing or play­ing dif­fer­ent things, we’re only sep­a­rate, not iso­lat­ed.

And I can’t use a VR head­set out of my home, because I’ll lose aware­ness of my sur­round­ings (not to men­tion the bulk of car­ry­ing it around). So it becomes some­thing I can only use in very lim­it­ed, occa­sion­al moments, and then it becomes much hard­er to jus­ti­fy the expense. Per­haps this isn’t a uni­ver­sal prob­lem, but I sus­pect it will be com­mon.

Head­sets need to become lighter, cheap­er, and more eas­i­ly allow access to the exter­nal world. I’m sure the tech­nol­o­gy will get there. But I’m less cer­tain there will be suf­fi­cient audi­ence to sus­tain it until that point. We’ll find out in 2017.

How to cope with the future?

I don’t know if you’ve been fol­low­ing the news, but things have been bloody hec­tic here in the Unit­ed King­dom in the past few weeks. It’s all quite con­fus­ing; day-to-day life goes on large­ly as usu­al for most of us, while we’re exposed to a state of break­neck change all around. The micro-future seems as pre­dictable as ever, while the macro-future remains whol­ly uncer­tain and unknow­able.

I feel like a rug has been pulled out from under me. The imme­di­ate impact is that I find myself unable to write. I don’t have the focus, the con­cen­tra­tion, or the patience to tie con­nec­tions togeth­er. I need to redis­cov­er the craft.

Here are two things I recent­ly read about the future, writ­ten some 1,850 years apart. I’m not sure how to con­nect them beyond that they point towards some equa­nim­i­ty.

The future doesn’t stop com­ing just because you stop plan­ning for it.

Farhad Man­joo

Nev­er let the future dis­turb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of rea­son which today arm you against the present.

Mar­cus Aure­lius


Surveying the Landscape

I made my first web­site around 20 years ago; it was per­haps 1997, I for­get exact­ly. It was a Geoc­i­ties site, which meant that all I need­ed to get an accept­able result was to com­bine ani­mat­ed GIFs with Com­ic Sans. After Geoc­i­ties I moved to a self-host­ed site, built using Microsoft Front­page, and began to learn how to code. In 2000 I earned my first pay­ment for build­ing a web­site: I became a pro­fes­sion­al. The web has pro­vid­ed my liveli­hood for the 16 years since.

Which is why I was a lit­tle dis­mayed when Wired stat­ed in 2010 that The Web Is Dead. Since then I’ve seen sim­i­lar statements—either that the web is dying, or at the very least is no longer important—appear with increas­ing fre­quen­cy from many in the Sil­i­con Val­ley scene.

I don’t agree that the web is dead, or even that it’s dying. But now that I have shift­ed my career from web devel­op­er to tech­nol­o­gist, I have to take a more broad view, beyond the web alone, to look for trends in tech­nol­o­gy and the way peo­ple use it. And what I see makes me wor­ry, about what Chris Dixon iden­ti­fies in his post, The Inter­net Econ­o­my:

The real­is­tic dan­ger isn’t that the web dis­ap­pears, but that it gets mar­gin­al­ized.

The tech­nol­o­gy land­scape today con­tains many threats to the web: not to its exis­tence, but to its long-term health and pros­per­i­ty as a first-choice plat­form for prod­ucts and ser­vices.

These threats come in many forms. There’s the increas­ing com­modi­ti­sa­tion of tools, as com­pa­nies like Square­space make it eas­i­er than ever to get a good-look­ing site online quickly—and even eas­i­er in future as smarter tools like The Grid and Wix’ Arti­fi­cial Design Intel­li­gence min­imise the effort required in launch­ing on the web by using con­tent-based auto­mat­ic gen­er­a­tion.

In the slight­ly longer term the com­modi­ti­sa­tion of AI could have an effect, automat­ing com­mon cod­ing, design and con­tent pro­duc­tion roles and dimin­ish­ing fur­ther the avail­able work for pro­fes­sion­als. Wired, ever the har­bin­ger of doom, have already pre­dict­ed ‘The End of Code’.

But the larg­er threats come in broad­er changes to the land­scape: in user behav­iour, as mobile eats the world, and pub­lish­ing, as there’s a gen­er­al con­sol­i­da­tion around dis­tri­b­u­tion plat­forms. Togeth­er, these trends indi­cate the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the web—the open web, as I mean it—will be left behind.

From Apps to Platforms

In recent years, apps have pro­vide the biggest com­pe­ti­tion to the web, with both Android and Apple con­tin­u­ing to pri­ori­tise on per­for­mance, cre­ation and dis­tri­b­u­tion tools, and pub­lish­ers pro­vid­ing opti­mised expe­ri­ences for app users over those on the web—if they pro­vide any web inter­face at all. John Herrman’s arti­cle, Upload Com­plete (which I’ll be refer­ring to exten­sive­ly in this post) puts it like this:

In 2016, the still-vast and still-grow­ing web is com­par­a­tive­ly dimin­ished. Slight­ly new­er plat­forms, such as Insta­gram and Vine, hard­ly touch it; Snapchat doesn’t even acknowl­edge it.

Many prod­ucts launch app-first, some launch app-only, and some for­mer­ly web-based prod­ucts are being dropped in favour of apps—last year, two major Indi­an retail­ers, Flip­kart and Myn­tra, chose an app-only mobile strat­e­gy, clos­ing down their mobile web retail inter­faces and leav­ing in their place a prompt to down­load their respec­tive native apps.

Apple made an esti­mat­ed $6bn from the App Store last year and seem­ing­ly de-pri­ori­tised their Safari brows­er, as it’s seen rel­a­tive­ly few changes over the past few years. And in iOS9 they intro­duced uni­ver­sal links, a way to bypass the web by inter­cept­ing URLs and direct­ing the user to an installed app rather than the brows­er.

Google have gone one fur­ther with the intro­duc­tion of instant apps on Android; these also inter­cept URLs, but open them in app frag­ments streamed from a serv­er, bypass­ing both the web and the require­ment of hav­ing an app installed at all. They also recent­ly announced that the pre­vi­ous­ly web-only Chrome OS will run native Android apps.

Google’s busi­ness is adver­tis­ing, and adver­tis­ing is also a threat to the web. Most of the time adver­tis­ing on the web is mere­ly annoy­ing; often, as with mul­ti­ple app-down­load doorslams, it’s obstruc­tive. But some­times advertising—or, per­haps to be more pre­cise, the track­ing script that accom­pa­nies advertising—is oner­ous, or even down­right dan­ger­ous.

A recent study showed that while ads take up only 9% of screen real estate (a gen­er­ous aver­age, IMO) they account for some 54% of load time. Anoth­er study (admit­ted­ly small-scale) sug­gest­ed that between 18% and 79% of data down­loaded on some sites was advertising/tracking. This is con­tribut­ing to a chill­ing effect online:

Near­ly one in two inter­net users say pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty con­cerns have stopped them from doing basic things online, such as post­ing to social net­works, express­ing opin­ions in forums or even buy­ing things from web­sites.

Of course, ads can be blocked, and a recent report indi­cates that peo­ple are doing just that: of smart­phone users, some 22% (that’s 419 mil­lion peo­ple) use ad-block­ing soft­ware of some kind, whether browsers with built-in block­ing (such as UC, or Opera) or brows­er exten­sions. And this may be gen­er­a­tional: in the UK some 22% of adults aged 25–44 use ad-block­ing soft­ware, but that num­ber ris­es to almost half (47%) in those aged 18–24

(Some of these num­bers are dis­put­ed, although the gen­er­al trend is not).

The prob­lem is, many sites rely on adver­tis­ing for their income, and ad block­ers reduced that income by $22 bil­lion in 2014 (almost dou­ble the fig­ure from the year before), and in an absence of alter­na­tive forms of mon­eti­sa­tion, we’re like­ly to see a col­lapse com­ing soon. In the UK we’ve seen the inter­net hol­low out the news­pa­per indus­try, and the adver­tis­ing col­lapse is like­ly to see a sim­i­lar sto­ry play out online: already this year pub­lish­ers such as Buz­zfeed, the Guardian, the Tele­graph and Vice are report­ing low­er than expect­ed rev­enue.

Pub­lish­ers keen to turn a prof­it will have to part­ner with the plat­forms that make mon­ey: that is, Face­book and Google. In the first quar­ter of 2016 it was esti­mat­ed that between them, these two took 85 cents of every new adver­tis­ing dol­lar. Emi­ly Bell, for­mer­ly of The Guardian, warned media pub­lish­ers:

Hav­ing a lega­cy busi­ness con­fig­ured around a web­site is now almost as much of a headache as the rum­bling print­ing press, fuelled by paper and mon­ey.

Bell’s pre­dic­tion that pub­lish­ers might close their own web­sites and rely instead on plat­forms for dis­tri­b­u­tion was borne out this year through a new UK news­pa­per called The New Day, which launched with no ded­i­cat­ed web­site, opt­ing to dis­trib­ute online entire­ly through social chan­nels (it fold­ed lat­er in the same year, but that’s more relat­ed to phys­i­cal sales).

In this cli­mate, Evan Williams (for­mer­ly of Twit­ter and now of Medi­um) believes it’s inevitable that publishing—professional and personal—will move to cen­tralised plat­forms:

The idea won’t be to start a web­site. That will be dead. 
The indi­vid­ual web­site won’t mat­ter. The inter­net is not going to be about bil­lions of peo­ple going to mil­lions of web­sites. It will be about get­ting it from cen­tralised web­sites.

Jon Lax, direc­tor of prod­uct design at Face­book, agrees:

A lot of design­ers are still focused on build­ing web­sites and I’m not sure that’s a growth busi­ness any more. The trend of mobile has fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the dynam­ics of how infor­ma­tion is dis­trib­uted. It turns out that peo­ple like feeds.

You may think, of course they would say that, they have vest­ed inter­ests. But pub­lish­ers are mov­ing their oper­a­tions to Medi­um; and Lax closed his suc­cess­ful web design agency to work for Face­book.

In the ear­li­er days of the web, from its incep­tion to around 2000, con­tent was gen­er­al­ly dis­cov­ered through por­tals such as Yahoo (I refuse to use the excla­ma­tion). From 2000 to a few years ago, search—or rather, Google—was the promi­nent par­a­digm. But today con­tent is large­ly shared and dis­cov­ered through feeds, on plat­forms includ­ing Medi­um, Twit­ter, Apple News, and of course Face­book, with its 1.6bn active users every month.

Ear­li­er in this arti­cle I men­tioned John Herrman’s piece, Upload Com­plete. It’s the final part of a series of arti­cles called The Con­tent Wars, pub­lished by the inde­pen­dent pub­lish­er The Awl, and explains very clear­ly what’s hap­pen­ing to the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of con­tent online:

Face­book… has grad­u­al­ly replaced, with­in its plat­form, parts of the web its users shared most: out­side videos; out­side arti­cles; out­side per­son­al sites; out­side list­ings; out­side streams; soon, maybe, out­side audio streams. Twit­ter, slow­ly and with less lever­age, has been doing the same.

The plat­forms that came of age on the web are leav­ing it behind.

Under­stood from the per­spec­tive of the web, the last five years have rep­re­sent­ed a sort of tragedy of the com­mons.

(The tragedy of the com­mons is the process where­in indi­vid­ual users act­ing inde­pen­dent­ly and ratio­nal­ly accord­ing to their own self-inter­est behave con­trary to the com­mon good of all users by deplet­ing that resource.)

The plat­forms grew big and strong. Web­sites and pub­lish­ers catered to the needs of those plat­forms, vague wor­ries about con­trol and iden­ti­ty set aside for the nec­es­sary pur­suit of audi­ence in an unpre­dictable envi­ron­ment.

Short­ly after the piece was pub­lished, The Awl closed their web­site and moved all their con­tent to Medi­um.

The Next Billion

I’m going to digress briefly at this point to talk about “the next bil­lion”. This is a phrase we hear a lot, and what it means is that in 2014 there were approx­i­mate­ly three bil­lion peo­ple online glob­al­ly, and in 2018 the pre­dic­tion is that four bil­lion peo­ple will be online. So those are the next bil­lion, and every major com­pa­ny wants to reach them as clients/customers/consumers.

In India alone, 105m peo­ple came online last year (854m are yet to come online). And the next bil­lion are com­ing online in a very dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ment than most of us: many—perhaps almost all—of them will only ever expe­ri­ence the online world through their mobiles; and most of them live in rur­al areas where net­works are either poor qual­i­ty or very expen­sive, or both.

A quick back-of-the-enve­lope cal­cu­la­tion says that for the salary earned from one hour of min­i­mum wage work in India, you can vis­it 15 web­sites. In Myan­mar, where some 60% of the coun­try have come online in the past two years alone, 1GB of data costs approx. 15% of the nation­al aver­age month­ly income—and of course that per­cent­age is like­ly to be much high­er in the rur­al areas where income is low­er.

In a great arti­cle, The Face­book-Lov­ing Farm­ers of Myan­mar, which reports on an ethno­graph­ic field study of the coun­try open­ing up in the tran­si­tion to democ­ra­cy, Craig Mod explains:

The tel­cos oper­ate on pre-paid sys­tems. Nobody has a cred­it card. Every­one buys top-up from top-up shops… They feel each megabyte.

Mod observes that the result of this cost is that Face­book is incred­i­bly pop­u­lar, because:

Face­book has a com­pelling advan­tage over oth­er news apps or even Twit­ter: The con­tent of many posts and news items live inside Face­book itself. There are exter­nal links, but most of the arti­cle sum­maries and pho­tos are self con­tained.

Facebook’s con­tin­ued aggre­ga­tion of con­tent from out­side of its plat­form, into its plat­form, offers a clear advan­tage to peo­ple for whom data cost and speed is a real issue. Indeed, so strong is Facebook’s pres­ence across the emerg­ing online world that for many peo­ple Face­book is the inter­net. Mod con­tin­ues:

As Face­book con­tin­ues to ramp up their Instant Arti­cles the amount of con­tent that lives in Face­book will only increase. For those who are data sen­si­tive, this is a clear virtue.

For the unaware, Instant Arti­cles are Facebook’s method of dis­play­ing con­tent from pub­lish­ers native­ly on their own plat­form rather than the pub­lish­ers’ web­sites. Arti­cles are stripped of nav­i­ga­tion, track­ing and adver­tis­ing, to ensure faster load­ing. In the launch announce­ment of instant arti­cles, Face­book said:

Sto­ries [shared on Face­book] take an aver­age of eight sec­onds to load, by far the slow­est sin­gle con­tent type. Instant Arti­cles makes the read­ing expe­ri­ence as much as ten times faster than stan­dard mobile web arti­cles.

Face­book are not the only plat­form that con­sol­i­date sto­ries in this way; Flip­board and Apple News, among oth­ers, also do the same. The AMP project, spear­head­ed by Google, offers a ‘web-friend­ly’ alter­na­tive that works best when cached on their own servers.

In addi­tion to Instant Arti­cles, Face­book have their own new adver­tis­ing ser­vice, Can­vas, to make dis­tri­b­u­tion of con­tent on their plat­form a more attrac­tive propo­si­tion. The Can­vas web­site also makes a point of play­ing up its supe­ri­or per­for­mance com­pared to the web:

A fast-load­ing and seam­less expe­ri­ence on Android and iOS. Can­vas loads quick­ly, as much as ten times faster than the stan­dard mobile web.

Messaging and Meta-Platforms

Oth­er than Face­book, the oth­er type of app that’s pop­u­lar across the devel­op­ing world—and, indeed, the rest of the world—is mes­sag­ing. From WeChat in Chi­na to Line in Japan, from Kakao in Korea to Telegram in the Mid­dle East to Kik in the USA, there are many dif­fer­ent mes­sag­ing apps across the dif­fer­ent mar­kets. Span­ning every mar­ket is the biggest of them all, What­sApp, with 1 bil­lion month­ly active users, although Face­book Mes­sen­ger fol­lows close­ly with 900 mil­lion.

Rather than being sim­ply mes­sag­ing apps, used for inter-per­son­al text com­mu­ni­ca­tion, most are active­ly build­ing up the capa­bil­i­ties of their offer­ings to make them into ful­ly-fea­tured plat­forms. Antho­ny Green of Kik states:

Mes­sag­ing apps are the new browsers.

The mod­el they all want to fol­low is Tencent’s enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar and influ­en­tial WeChat (Wēixìn in its native Chi­na). WeChat has around 700 mil­lion month­ly active users—only slight­ly less than the esti­mat­ed 720 mil­lion inter­net users in the coun­try. The plat­form offers users ser­vices such as pay­ments, bank­ing, trans­port, enter­tain­ment and gam­ing (and client-friend­ly tools like track­ing and ana­lyt­ics). Stephen Wang, a prod­uct man­ag­er at WeChat, put it like this:

At every time through­out the day, there is a touch­point between WeChat and your nor­mal life.

That’s not just wish­ful think­ing; recent data shows that, in April 2016, some 35% of time online in Chi­na was spent in WeChat.

In his insight­ful arti­cle from 2015, Rise of the Meta-plat­forms and the New ‘Web Browsers’, Paul Kin­lan of the Google Chrome team looked at mes­sag­ing apps as meta-plat­forms; that is, plat­forms con­sumed on plat­forms where they are like­ly not a first class cit­i­zen. That def­i­n­i­tion also applies to the web brows­er, and Face­book. One of the things that was most clear to him was:

Many of the plat­forms on mobile are choos­ing to host con­tent with­in their own app expe­ri­ence and this is in my opin­ion a direct and com­pelling threat to the web.

Face­book have Instant Arti­cles; Apple, their News plat­form; WeChat, Offi­cial Accounts (brand pages with­in the plat­form). All are aimed at con­sol­i­dat­ing the user expe­ri­ence on their own plat­form, large­ly at the expense of oth­er apps—and the web.

As peo­ple spend more time in mes­sag­ing apps, it becomes inevitable that brands and ser­vices want to engage with them there. Ben Eidel­son, for­mer­ly of Google Hang­outs, attrib­ut­es this to a sim­ple insight:

If mes­sag­ing is so use­ful and so popular…why do you only mes­sage with your friends and fam­i­ly?

Many of the mes­sag­ing plat­forms have intro­duced agents of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between users and ser­vices, through the mes­sag­ing inter­face. This com­mu­ni­ca­tion is gen­er­al­ly referred to as Con­ver­sa­tion­al UI, and the agents of com­mu­ni­ca­tion are bots. The role of bots is sug­gest­ed in the full quote from Antho­ny Green that I men­tioned ear­li­er:

Mes­sag­ing apps are the new browsers, bots are the new web pages.

The mes­sag­ing / com­mu­ni­ca­tions plat­forms Face­book Mes­sen­ger, Telegram, Skype, Kik, and Slack each have APIs that facil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ca­tion through bots. Some of Messenger’s ear­li­est efforts have been some­what over­hyped and under­whelm­ing, but this is a new area and like­ly to improve as peo­ple learn how to best take advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ties of bots. Chris Messi­na offered this def­i­n­i­tion:

The way I see it, bots are just wrap­pers for APIs in con­ver­sa­tion­al UIs. Apps are just wrap­pers for APIs on home screens.

Put in those terms, bots seem like the reasonable—even logical—step for mes­sag­ing plat­forms. And as peo­ple are able to inter­act with bots in their plat­form of choice, they’re less like­ly to use oth­er apps—including the web brows­er.

Con­ver­sa­tion­al inter­ac­tion also opens up the mar­ket for two oth­er ser­vices that don’t require the web. The first is wear­ables, on which the most com­mon actions are read­ing noti­fi­ca­tions, and inter­act­ing with them. The stream­lin­ing of ser­vices to suit bots also cre­ates oppor­tu­ni­ty for inter­ac­tion through sim­ple, action­able alerts on a smart watch.

And a log­i­cal exten­sion of con­ver­sa­tion­al UI is into ser­vices con­trolled entire­ly by voice. Prod­ucts like Ama­zon Echo, the recent­ly announced Google Home, and Apple’s CarPlay fea­tur­ing Siri, allow users to inter­act with online ser­vices in a way that requires lim­it­ed visu­al interface—or none at all.

Finding Opportunities

A quick recap of the threats to the web as I see them: pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of apps on mobile OSes, includ­ing URL inter­cep­tion; destruc­tive online adver­tis­ing and track­ing; ad block­ing con­tribut­ing to a col­lapse of mon­eti­sa­tion; pub­lish­ers dis­trib­ut­ing through cen­tralised plat­forms; emerg­ing mar­kets with no lega­cy attach­ment to the web and no incen­tive to use it; con­tent con­sol­i­da­tion onto plat­forms to suit the net­work demands of new mar­kets; mes­sag­ing plat­forms offer­ing direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion with ser­vices in a con­ver­sa­tion­al inter­face; and new prod­ucts with no visu­al UI at all.

Wow… that’s heavy.

But all is not lost. Things may look grim, but these are trends towards a pos­si­ble future, not man­i­fes­ta­tions of the cer­tain future. The web is far from done. While 1.6bn peo­ple use Face­book every month, every­one online —over 3bn people—has access to a web brows­er. In April, Google announced that one bil­lion peo­ple access the web using Chrome on mobile alone.

The web still has two great advan­tages: dis­tri­b­u­tion and reach. Jason Kara­ian, of Quartz, the online news pub­lish­er who have recent­ly released a native, con­ver­sa­tion­al chat client, explains why their main focus is still the web:

The best way to reach new con­sumers is through the open web.

We know the web mod­el works because every­one wants to copy it. Apple’s uni­ver­sal links and Google’s instant apps both rely on URLs. But as Klint Fin­ley put it in a recent Wired arti­cle:

If you want apps that work like the web, the web is still your best choice.

Wired recent­ly backed down from their ear­li­er asser­tion that the web is dead, with the arti­cle Wait! The Web Isn’t Dead After All. Google Made Sure of It. While they’re giv­ing too much cred­it to Google alone, what they’re specif­i­cal­ly refer­ring to are Pro­gres­sive Web Apps (PWA). These are sites that are built to a cer­tain set of prin­ci­ples: for exam­ple that they be engag­ing, instal­lable, share­able, and fast. They don’t mim­ic native apps, but are intend­ed to match the expe­ri­ence and per­for­mance expec­ta­tions set by native while keep­ing the web’s advan­tages.

I wrote ear­li­er about Flipkart’s deci­sion to drop their mobile site and go app-only, leav­ing their mobile web pres­ence as sim­ply a page with a push to down­load the app. But there was a sting in the tale: only 4% of vis­i­tors actu­al­ly installed the app. Sales dropped, and Flip­kart moved quick­ly to build a new mobile web­site, Flip­kart Lite (mobile only), built to PWA prin­ci­ples. The site has seen big suc­cess in many met­rics: for exam­ple, mak­ing it eas­i­er to add the site’s icon to the mobile home­screen, and there­fore mak­ing it more vis­i­ble, led to a 70% increase in con­ver­sions.

Much of the inter­est in PWA comes from the devel­op­ing world, with ear­ly adopters espe­cial­ly com­mon across Asia. This is not sur­pris­ing: the world is chang­ing as the next bil­lion come online. And when they come online it’s on mobile, where they feel the cost of the data. Native apps come with a cost to down­load, and a cost to keep updat­ed; offline-opti­mised web apps should offer the advan­tage of being lighter to load, with few­er and lighter updates.

As browsers become more capa­ble and the web can offer expe­ri­ences that com­pete with native, we may per­haps be see­ing the begin­ning of a fight­back against native apps. An ear­ly exam­ple are Patag­o­nia, who scrapped their iOS app to go web only, with the mes­sage:

Now that our web­site is beau­ti­ful and easy to use on all mobile web browsers, we will no longer be sup­port­ing this app—you may delete it from your device.

Even in Chi­na, where WeChat sub­sti­tutes the brows­er for many peo­ple, much of the inter­ac­tion that hap­pens with offi­cial accounts is done through mobile web pages viewed in an embed­ded brows­er rather than an exter­nal one. Alessio Bas­so, who works in Asia with plat­forms includ­ing WeChat, explains it thus:

WeChat is an incred­i­ble dri­ver for adop­tion of mobile web devel­op­ment tech­niques. While in the West com­pa­nies are still native-first (usu­al­ly iOS-first), in Chi­na the most impor­tant pres­ence one may have is a mobile-opti­mised web­site.

Asian mes­sag­ing apps tend to be good at dis­cov­ery, through their embed­ded QR code read­er (QR codes are more com­mon there, espe­cial­ly in Chi­na). This has cre­at­ed a cat­e­go­ry of web app which aren’t at all com­mon out­side of the region: the light app. These are rich, ani­mat­ed, one-hit web pages; a user might open one, read it, share it with a friend (hope­ful­ly), then nev­er vis­it again. Kendra Schae­fer describes them:

Light apps are often sin­gle-page, sin­gle-mes­sage and intend­ed to be sin­gle-use.

This low-fric­tion inter­ac­tion is one of the strongest fea­tures the web has in its favour, and why I’m excit­ed by the Phys­i­cal Web, a method that involves a URL broad­cast from a bea­con and dis­cov­ered by your brows­er (qui­et­ly, in the back­ground), so that you can con­nect with web pages in your imme­di­ate vicin­i­ty. For exam­ple, in Lon­don (where I live) some bus­es trans­mit a URL so that pas­sen­gers can con­nect to a web page with timeta­bles, and route and trav­el infor­ma­tion (and some adver­tis­ing). No instal­la­tion, no search, just infor­ma­tion that’s direct­ly appro­pri­ate to your loca­tion.

This localised dis­cov­ery becomes even more pow­er­ful when com­bined with the Web Blue­tooth API. The brows­er is enabled to direct­ly con­nect to objects that broad­cast a GATT ser­vice over Blue­tooth Low Ener­gy, allow­ing peo­ple to ‘walk up and use’ con­nect­ed objects with­out any app inter­me­di­ary. This puts the web at the heart of the ‘inter­net of things’.

And there are oppor­tu­ni­ties for the web in plat­forms we’d per­haps nev­er con­sid­er. Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty, like mobile, suf­fers from cross-OS app incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty; Ocu­lus Rift apps can’t run on Vive head­sets, and vice ver­sa. Any VR head­set can run a brows­er, how­ev­er; so the Web VR project aims to cre­ate a Javascript API that deliv­ers con­tent on any VR device.

All of this makes the web com­pet­i­tive, and offers some hope for the future. But for the web to real­ly thrive as well as com­pete, per­haps what’s need­ed is a more fun­da­men­tal rethink of the web and brows­er.

The Web in the Future

The role of the web has changed a lot in the 25 years or so since its incep­tion. It was con­ceived as a hyper­linked doc­u­ment repos­i­to­ry, but today it’s an inte­gral part of our cul­ture: we con­duct social, finan­cial, and gov­ern­men­tal trans­ac­tions on the web, we write our his­to­ry there. So in order for the web to pros­per into the future, it could be time to recon­sid­er it. In his blog post Does the Web Mat­ter Any­more? Allen Wirfs-Brock says:

We are still in the very ear­ly stages of the next dig­i­tal era. If we are going to con­tin­ue to use  “the web” as a label then it needs to rep­re­sent a 20+ year vision that tran­scends web browsers.

This will involve chang­ing our men­tal mod­el of the web, from a series of linked pages or apps that are viewed in the brows­er, which is an app on native plat­forms, to some­thing that’s every­where—includ­ing, but not exclu­sive to, the brows­er. Dries Buy­taert spoke about this:

I don’t define “the web” as web­sites alone, but rather as any user expe­ri­ence that’s deliv­ered across mul­ti­ple chan­nels and devices.

And once we start think­ing of it that way, we can start to con­sid­er web con­tent less as a des­ti­na­tion, and more in the way Jeff Jarvis describes:

A con­tainer­ized, embed­d­a­ble arti­cle that trav­els to any site with brand, rev­enue, ana­lyt­ics, and links attached.

As the tech land­scape changes so that infor­ma­tion is frag­ment­ed across dif­fer­ent interfaces—including desk­top, mobile, con­nect­ed object, and conversation—then the web should change with it. Stephanie Rieger lays out an idea for this change in her arti­cle, Why Con­ver­sa­tion­al Com­merce May Be Our Best Chance To Re-imag­ine The Web:

If apps are to become mere ser­vices with­in an OS that deliv­ers the best UI for the moment — why should the web not be a part of this change? The web could sim­ply become yet anoth­er ser­vice. Or a core com­po­nent. Or bet­ter yet— a defin­ing mod­el for how all oth­er ser­vices should behave.

The web’s inven­tor, Tim Bern­ers Lee, this week attend­ed a con­fer­ence aimed at dis­cussing how to rebuild the web using an alter­na­tive, dis­trib­uted mod­el. Re-imag­in­ing the web pro­vides the oppor­tu­ni­ty to also re-imag­ine its role: not as an app, but as a mod­el. Stephanie Rieger again:

Once you accept the idea of the web as first-class cit­i­zen, it shifts the bal­ance of pow­er. The uni­ver­sal­ly acces­si­ble, mul­ti-device and mul­ti-con­text web is there to enhance native infra­struc­ture — not the oth­er way around.

Why It Matters

The web doesn’t have to become mar­gin­alised by new tech­nolo­gies, but we who sup­port it must fight for it. We must not get com­pla­cent and believe that the web has any innate right to be the plat­form of choice. I don’t think users care if they’re using the web or native apps; they just care about com­plet­ing their task in the most con­ve­nient way. Yves Béhar said:

Tech­nol­o­gy does not have intrin­sic val­ue. It has to deliv­er val­ue by enhanc­ing the way we expe­ri­ence the world around us.

A web that enhances our expe­ri­ence of the world appeals to me more than the web as a dimin­ished app on dimin­ished native plat­forms. To achieve that will require hard work, con­sid­er­a­tion, and imag­i­na­tion. But I believe it’s worth it, because I agree with David Her­man when he says:

The main rea­son I care about the web is because it’s the world’s biggest soft­ware plat­form that isn’t owned.

This arti­cle is based on Sur­vey­ing The Land­scape, a pre­sen­ta­tion I wrote and deliv­ered in the first half of 2016 (also under the title I Am Grout (don’t ask)). It’s opin­ion­at­ed and incom­plete, and I wel­come feed­back and crit­i­cism.

Art and embracing new technology

I’m inter­est­ed in the way peo­ple react to tech­no­log­i­cal­ly-induced change. It seems to me that there’s a strong— per­haps over­whelm­ing? — feel­ing in some quar­ters that new tech­nol­o­gy is gen­er­al­ly awful and we were bet­ter off before. But I’m more inter­est­ed in see­ing the ben­e­fits as well as the draw­backs, in find­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty in trans­for­ma­tion, and I like to see exam­ples where rad­i­cal change is wel­comed.

All that’s a way of intro­duc­ing Paint­ing With Light, a fas­ci­nat­ing new exhi­bi­tion at Tate Britain that explores the effect of the inven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy on art, espe­cial­ly the 19th Cen­tu­ry Pre-Raphaelite soci­ety.

(L) ‘Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die!’. Julia Margaret Cameron. (R) ‘Beata Beatrix’. Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
(L) ‘Call, I Fol­low, I Fol­low, Let Me Die!’. Julia Mar­garet Cameron. ® ‘Bea­ta Beat­rix’. Dante Gabriel Ros­set­ti.

Brief aside: I’m not an art his­to­ri­an so much of the fol­low­ing is based on my notes from the exhi­bi­tion plus brief online research and light pri­or knowl­edge. I take respon­si­bil­i­ty for any mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

It’s fair to say that many painters were not pleased by the inven­tion of the pho­to­graph (com­mon­ly dat­ed to 1839). The French painter Paul Delaroche is often quot­ed as say­ing, on first see­ing a daguer­rotype (the ear­ly form of pho­to­graph): “from today, paint­ing is dead”.

But some artists were less afraid of the new inven­tion. The Scot­tish painter David Octavius Hill want­ed to record a major change in the Church of Scot­land in a pic­ture which involved hun­dreds of peo­ple. He worked with the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Robert Adam­son to get pho­to­graph­ic por­traits of all those present, and use them as a ref­er­ence to paint the scene over a peri­od of some 20 years. The fin­ished work, known as The Dis­rup­tion Pic­ture, looks rather like a pho­to­graph­ic col­lage; it has an air of Peter Blake’s work some 100 years lat­er on the Bea­t­les’ Sgt. Pep­per album cov­er.

‘Disruption Picture’. David Octavius Hill. © Free Church of Scotland, Photograph by George T. Thompson LRPS.
‘Dis­rup­tion Pic­ture’. David Octavius Hill. © Free Church of Scot­land, Pho­to­graph by George T. Thomp­son LRPS.

The Eng­lish his­tor­i­cal artist William Etty praised daguer­rotypes for reviv­ing the real­ism of great artists such as Rem­brandt, Tit­ian, and Spag­no­let­to. And the emi­nent art crit­ic and artist (among many oth­er roles), John Ruskin, agreed. Ruskin believed that truth was found in details, in clar­i­ty:

The great­est thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see some­thing and tell what it saw in a plain way. To see clear­ly is poet­ry, prophe­cy and reli­gion, all in one.

So Ruskin was very tak­en by the rapid cap­ture and fideli­ty promised by pho­tog­ra­phy, strong­ly defend­ing it from crit­ics in a let­ter:

Pho­tog­ra­phy is a noble inven­tion, say what they will of it. Any­one who has worked, blun­dered and stam­mered as I have done [for] four days, and then sees the thing he has been try­ing to do so long in vain, done per­fect­ly and fault­less­ly in half a minute, won’t abuse it after­wards.

Ruskin’s the­o­ries heav­i­ly influ­enced the Pre-Raphaelite Broth­er­hood, a cir­cle of painters, poets and crit­ics, who dis­dained clas­si­cism and dis­cov­ered mean­ing in details pre­vi­ous­ly over­looked, ‘reject­ing noth­ing, select­ing noth­ing’. The Pre-Raphaelites were quick to see the advan­tages of pho­tog­ra­phy, using exten­sive pho­to­graph­ic ref­er­ence in paint­ing their super-detailed tex­tures, light and por­traits.

‘Bowder Stone, Borrowdale’. Atkinson Grimshaw. Image © Tate, London 2014.
‘Bow­der Stone, Bor­row­dale’. Atkin­son Grimshaw. Image © Tate, Lon­don 2014.

Over time the Pre-Raphaelite cir­cle expand­ed and influ­enced many oth­er artists, includ­ing pho­tog­ra­phers such as Julia Mar­garet Cameron. In his mem­oirs, the artist William Bell Scott wrote:

The seed of the flower of Pre-Raphaelit­ism was pho­tog­ra­phy.

Pho­tog­ra­phy has sub­se­quent­ly influ­enced art in many ways, but it’s inter­est­ing to see that, at its incep­tion, those who might have felt that they were in com­pe­ti­tion — an artis­tic move­ment known for their devo­tion to the real­ism of detail — whole­heart­ed­ly embraced the new tech­nol­o­gy to improve their work. And in return, pho­tog­ra­phers were influ­enced by paint­ing, using the years of expe­ri­ence of com­po­si­tion and arrange­ment to cre­ate great works of art.

There were a few oth­er notes of inter­est that I gleaned from the exhi­bi­tion. First, that some artists would take pho­tos of their paint­ings so that they could more quick­ly exper­i­ment with mod­i­fi­ca­tions and vari­a­tions; an ear­ly under­stand­ing of the util­i­ty of pho­to­copy­ing.

And Pre-Raphaelit­ism and pho­tog­ra­phy also com­bined in an inter­est­ing way through Hen­ry Wal­lis’ The Death of Chat­ter­ton.

‘The Death of Chatterton’. Henry Wallis. Tate Britain, scanned by Google Cultural Institute.
‘The Death of Chat­ter­ton’. Hen­ry Wal­lis. Tate Britain, scanned by Google Cul­tur­al Insti­tute.

This paint­ing was phe­nom­e­nal­ly suc­cess­ful, draw­ing large crowds when exhib­it­ed. A cer­tain James Robin­son made a tableau vivant (a posed pho­to­graph­ic recon­struc­tion) of the paint­ing and sold copies of it. The cur­rent own­er of the pho­to­graph, Augus­tus Egg, was forced to take Robin­son to court: the first art copy­right case.

‘The Death of Chatterton’. James Robinson. From the collection of Dr Brian May.
‘The Death of Chat­ter­ton’. James Robin­son. From the col­lec­tion of Dr Bri­an May.

Robinson’s pho­to­graph is shown in the Tate exhi­bi­tion in the form of a stere­o­graph. This method, invent­ed in the 1850s short­ly after pho­tog­ra­phy, involves tak­ing two iden­ti­cal images and dis­play­ing them side by side, then view­ing them through pris­mat­ic lens­es that cre­ate the illu­sion of depth. If that sounds famil­iar: yes, it’s how mod­ern VR works!