Predictions of the Web: Part 1

With the exponential rate of change we are experiencing in web technology, I thought it would be fun to start a series of prediction articles on where I see the web heading in the future. It will be interesting to look back several years from now and see which ones become reality.

Technology will continue to get faster, smaller and cheaper. Companies will continue to create innovative new products with these technologies, and marketeers will continue to convince us that we can’t survive or find fulfillment without these products. People will often scramble to be the first kid on the block with the shiny new toy. But once the hype wears off, we can reflect on these new tools and ask which ones really improve our quality of life, especially if they incur any cost-either in terms of money, time, or headaches.

In the early 2000’s I discovered the power of Flash in providing a rich user experience with animation and complex interactions. Full flash websites sprang up like weeds, and for a time I believed Flash was the future of the web. But the hype wore off, the costs appeared- loss of accessibility, search engine optimization, security, maintainability, scalability, the plugin requirement, and loss of browser features like the back button and bookmarks. To make a fully flash site with all these features requires a tremendous amount of work. Except for a few niche markets, the cost outweighed the benefit and most business realized the necessity just wasn’t there. Looking back in history, many similar examples can be found. Fads come and go, but true improvements are here to stay.

At the end of the day, the web truly address a few genuine human needs:

  1. Access to information
  2. Interaction with people and businesses
  3. Entertainment

Keeping this in mind, I have many predictions about the future of the web.

Operating System Synergy
The wall between your personal computer and the web is going to become transparent and/or possibly vanish altogether. One small step is the feature in gmail where you can drag and drop files from your desktop into the browser as attachments. Collaborative web based document editing tools like MS SharePoint leverage the richness and reliability of desktop applications with the connectivity of the web. But to allow the browser to interact closely with the file system opens host of security concerns. The average user will not read a privacy policy, an “I Agree” statement, or sometimes even the list of privileges a phone app requires to run. Built in browser security features that warn you “are entering an insecure site” are about as effective as a car alarm.

Google Docs has gone a different route: building a word processor directly in a web browser and storing the data on their servers. This approach circumvents security issues and leads into my next point.

Up In The Clouds
I believe we are about to see the last generation of portable data storage devices (books, cds, dvds, movies, games, jump drives etc.). Having data in the cloud has many advantages. First, they are accessible anywhere. Now that the average american has a minimum of a home computer, a work computer and a smart phone, as well as possibly a laptop or notepad device, the need for central storage has increased dramatically. Dropbox is just one technology that answers this need. But it will increase.

You want your music everywhere. Scratched up CD collections have already lost ground to iPods, but even that has the necessity to download files and port a physical device around. Why deal with that when I can just subscribe to a service like Pandora and hear an unlimited library of new music wherever I go? As a side, I think XM radio will fall to the custom radio services like Pandora, and cars will begin to integrate these features into the dashboard. Likewise, why purchase and dedicate room to a movie collection when you can subscribe to a service like Netflix? I think the game industry will eventually go the same way. They have the added benefit of being able to continually push out patches.

That brings me to the second advantage of the cloud. Continuously current data. News is out of date the minute ink hits paper. Our expectation for current data will continue to heighten, as will our impatience for new data. Games and software no longer have to worry so much about a launch date, now that they can fix bugs after the fact. They can also make improvements based on community feedback.

And why shouldn’t the book industry benefit from this as well? Why can’t authors make corrections to already published books and make improvements based on reader suggestions? Light-weight reader devices like the kindle will easily replace heavy, spacious bookshelves. You might enjoy the idea of a bookshelf and get nostalgic thinking of your grandfather’s library, but in a few generations the number of people who choose to dedicate that amount of space in their house, plus the increased cost of an item that’s rarely good for more than one read, will continue to decline.

Death of a Postback
For those outside the web industry, postback refers to the event where you submit a request, and the web “posts back” the results of whatever action was made. It’s the nature of the relationship between the client (your computer) and the server. Due to bandwidth limitations and the general nature of data to be sent in packets, you gather all your information in a form or just a url address, send it off and the internet responds by posting back an entire webpage that your browser draws. For long form pages, this transaction mimics real life where you fill out a piece of paper and hand it to someone for processing, and they return with a result. In those cases, this is the expected behavior. I predict these will continue to be postbacks in lots of cases, although the groupings of data might get smaller.

But sometimes you are just making a simple request, like clicking on a link in a website. In this case, a postback is just that annoying flicker where you jump back up to the top of the page. These are the postbacks the world can live without.

Through AJAX, we can now update portions of a webpage without needing to redraw the whole siten, which causes the flicker effect. If the framework of the website hasn’t changed, this actually reduces the amount of data transferred, and provides a seamless “stateful” user experience. Stateful means that the user can edit a portion page content and those edits will persist as long as the user stays on that page. It’s how facebook can provide instant messaging that persists while you navigate through profiles. It’s how you can drag a road map to new areas or toggle a satelite view. This is how many web apps are able to simulate a desktop feel of continuous interaction. If you are viewing a grid of data, why shouldn’t that data constantly update? For industries like the stock market or news, continuous updates will very quickly go from being a luxury to a necessity.

 

Okay, I’ve rambled on enough for one day. Stay tuned, dear readers. More predictions to come.

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