The Web is dead, or not

The real danger of Wired Magazine’s story this week on the death of the Web (The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet) isn’t so much that it’s varnished BS as it is what people with a whole lot to lose will do with it. Media companies, for example, have much to gain if what the Wired article preaches is true, and sadly, I think, this will become yet another very costly diversion.

Based on data from Cisco, Wired has built a graph that seems to show browser traffic declining and app traffic on the increase. Never mind the fact that Boing-Boing has cut gaping holes in the image itself (“The use of proportion of the total as the vertical axis instead of the actual total is an interesting editorial choice.”), the reality, as Michael Arrington points out, is that much of the growth traffic on the net is video that runs via Flash through browsers.

Wired's image created from Cisco data

Boing-Boing reworked the image based on actual bandwidth usage, and it comes out looking more like this:

Boing-Boing looks at actual bandwidth

As Boing-Boing points out, that doesn’t look like death.

But Arrington’s argument goes beyond the simple manipulation of data to make a point.

The browser isn’t dead. Web pages aren’t dead. HTML works really, really well. Check out Facebook’s iPad “app,” for example. You don’t download it from an app store, you just point your browser to touch.facebook.com. Not only does it work really well, Steve Jobs doesn’t get to have a veto right over people using it. It’s no wonder that we’re seeing a surge of traffic from the iPad to our site, via a browser.

Apps are great on mobile phones with small screens. But they are a pain to install and keep synchronized. Eventually having less local software will make sense on phones, too. All you really need is that browser virtual machine and you can pull everything else from the cloud. This is obvious. Only a bunch of hipster tech journalists checking email on their iPads all day* would think otherwise, and then make up a bunch of data to support their argument.

*Wired, not us.

I couldn’t agree more with Michael, but here’s where I see the problem. The Wired article is filled with industrial age illustrations — like railroads and telephone systems — of how markets grow and then are seized by monopolies or oligopolies.

It is the cycle of capitalism. The story of industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over control. A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others. It happens every time.

The problem, of course, is that the industrial age is drawing to a close, and one simply cannot apply industrial age concepts to the new world. Why? Because money can’t buy scarcity when it comes to connectivity. THAT is the problem. We’re not just connected “up” any more, as Jay Rosen has so often pointed out; we’re connected horizontally to each other, and that blows a gaping hole in anybody’s economic theories.

What Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdoch and a whole bunch of others want is to find a way to sell the world on the scarcity model once again. The Wired article does that by simply announcing that because apps “work,” that means that apps are the future, regardless of how much money it costs each of us to use them.

The Wired article points out opposition to its vision but does so with a blithe dismissal that belies the self-serving nature of its theory in the first place. Wired is, after all, a magazine, and magazines want to believe that their future is apps.

The defenders of the unfettered Web have their hopes set on HTML5 — the latest version of Web-building code that offers applike flexibility — as an open way to satisfy the desire for quality of service. If a standard Web browser can act like an app, offering the sort of clean interface and seamless interactivity that iPad users want, perhaps users will resist the trend to the paid, closed, and proprietary. But the business forces lining up behind closed platforms are big and getting bigger. This is seen by many as a battle for the soul of the digital frontier.

I think Wired is right here, in that this is indeed a battle for the soul of the digital frontier. I just don’t buy the argument that deep pocket players have some inherent right to it, nor do I buy any argument that offers only a mass media, one-to-many solution. This is my essential problem with Steve Jobs, who is certainly the hero of any thinking like this. He’s a hero in the sense that he wants to help people with control maintain that control, but this underestimates and undervalues the real revolution that’s taking place within the digital world in two ways.

One, horizontal connectivity breaks the back of any one-to-many system, so attempts to restore that kind of hold will always include the breaking of the horizontal in some way. Connectivity through an app is a different animal than connectivity through the Web, for the app restricts what can or cannot be “shared.” What good is horizontal connectivity, if the connection is manipulated for profit?

Two, the cultural ramifications of the digital disruption involve the scattering of knowledge to the four corners of the earth. Since protected knowledge is the source of authority, this, too, has staggering cultural implications. The app world can conveniently put an end to this, and I don’t think people will stand for it.

I’m sure the article will sell a lot of magazines, as will the Fortune cover, “Is Google Over?” That is what we do, right?

(And for a little comic relief and perspective, read Henry McCracken’s wonderful “The Tragic Death of Practically Everything: Microsoft, Firefox, Facebook, the Mac–they live on in our hearts.”)

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