The End of the Web as We Know It? Not Likely

By: Steve Outing

A couple days ago I made a short column item out of a quote by futurist Paul Saffo about the future of the World Wide Web. I thought that it was a thought-provoking statement and republished the quote without comment -- and subsequently received quite a bit of email critical of Saffo's views. Some correspondents, I believe, misinterpreted my publishing of the remarks as endorsement of his views. That's not the case, so let me take some of today's column to look more carefully at Saffo's predictions (which appeared recently in Edupage and Information Week).

"The Web as we know it today is dead. It's dead in two ways: because it's going to mutate into something else very quickly and be unrecognizable within 12 months, ..."

Undoubtably, 1996 will see profound changes in the Web. Web sites are going to become more colorful and more animated; you'll find more sites making use of multimedia components, more audio and video clips, more sites experimenting with Java applets, etc. Another profound change for the Web will be that Web content will begin to be delivered to readers, rather than the reader being required to go to the Web. I've discussed this in 2 columns in the previous week, and as I said then, this is one of the most significant changes that the Web will undergo in the coming year. Truly secure commercial transactions will finally be possible on the Web in 1996. And discussion forum and live chat technology for the Web will allow user-to-user communication that's as good as what's possible on the proprietary commercial online services.

But Saffo seems to imply that the Web as a whole will change. Many Web sites as we know them today are perfectly adequate and don't need to transform themselves to become the "latest and greatest." The Web is a vast space, and there is room for many approaches. For many services, the Web of today is ideal; they don't need to reinvent themselves just because some new technology has come along. No, the Web is and can be many things to many people, and can support many technology applications and business models.

"And secondly, it's dead because all it's got on it is dead information. ... Sure, there are links, but the links just lead to more dead information. It's a big information mausoleum. But with things like Java, you get animation. The information is alive. ..."

Java holds great promise; it will allow for great innovations and truly holds the potential for taking the Web to a higher plane. But Saffo's broad-brush contention that what's on the Web today is "dead" is silly. The idea that you have to offer animation or video in order to be interesting enough to attract users is a TV mindset that doesn't stand up under scrutiny. If what's presented on the thousands and thousands of Web sites today was so uncompelling, Web usage rates wouldn't have skyrocketed in the last year.

Diane Haugen, of Whiskey Creek Document Design, put it this way in a note to me: "Did it ever occur to Paul Saffo that some of us prefer dead information to comic strips? What is this moronic fixation with motion?"

"Today, if you think about it, it's really quite bizarre. You dial into a Web page. There may be a thousand other people at that page. But the only way that you even know anyone else is there is that the server is slow. The next big change is going to be finding ways to put qualities that we associate with MUDs today into Web pages so that you can interact with people."

This is an interesting comment. As I've said repeatedly, online services cannot ignore the component of online that attracts most people online in the first place: person to person communication. Too many Web sites serve up information and news, but offer no opportunity for true user interaction -- either with the Web site's operators or with other Web users. That's a mistake, because study after study of the online experience has shown that information typically ranks a distant second in user value perception. The new technologies that will appear in the coming year will facilitate greater audience participation, which can nicely supplement the information-presentation component of a Web site.

Suggests Jeff Greene of the Asbury Park Press: "(Saffo's comment) roughly reminds me of Michael Crichton's thriller Disclosure, in which the characters are searching for information in a virtual reality database, and they can see other characters in their headsets. I'd be up for that on a more modest scale, assuming reality imitates art someday, but it would be even better if -- unlike in a crowded library -- you could 'turn off' the other people and concentrate on your information getting."


"Where text-based Web ate gopher yesterday, and graphics-based Web is eating the text version's lunch this morning, a multi-media edition is saying 'finito, Benito' to the graphics version. And a dim chorus of two is heard, way off in the foggy distance, 'But we need <alt> tags. Gotta have <alt&#62, or our Lynx browser gets lost.'"
-- Consultant Donovan White, Online Information Development and Design, commenting on the evolution of Internet interfaces (culled from the online-news Internet list)

Wall Street Journal Interactive update

Since there seems to be a lot of interest in the Wall Street Journal's upcoming Web service, the WSJ Interactive Edition, I checked in this week with Neil Budde, editor of the project. There's not much to report yet, but Budde said the formal launch of the full Interactive Edition service is targeted for March or April. The service will be a combination subscription- and advertising-driven model.

If you check in of the Journal's site today, you'll see a limited and free Web site using the name "WSJ Interactive Edition." Watch for the full service in a few weeks. This is likely to be a popular service with a large potential worldwide audience.

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