Minutes from the 08 March 2011 Meeting: Is the Web Dead?

About 40 people attended tonight’s meeting. Josh Zapin facilitated and Jeremy Kohler recorded the minutes.

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MEETING SPONSORS

Applied Trust (www.appliedtrust.com) provides refreshments, Copy Diva (www.copydiva.com) provides the audio-visual equipment, NCAR (www.ncar.ucar.edu) provides the facility, ONEWARE (www.oneware.com) sponsors the podcast, and ReturnPath (www.returnpath.net) sponsors the minutes.

Thanks also to Brian at covervillemedia.com for creating the podcast.

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ANNOUNCEMENTS

ReturnPath, our new minutes sponsor, is an email data company that makes deliverability tools. The company currently has opening for web engineers and software developers.

If you are interested in conversion optimization, check out meetup.com/denversempo.

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INTRODUCTION (JOSH ZAPIN)
In August, Wired Magazine published an article entitled “The Web Is Dead” (www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/all/1) that sparked a huge debate on the future of the Internet.

In the article, Chris Andersen, Wired’s Editor-In-Chief, posits that 20 years after its inception, going to web pages to consume information, is on the decline. In its place, are sleeker, more focused “apps” that deliver content in easier to consume ways. For example, instead of going to the newyorktimes.com, users are more apt to use the New York Times’ iPad app. The iPad app with its sleek page browsing interface, Anderson argues, makes consuming the content a much more pleasurable experience than using a cursor and a mouse to consume the same content.

Furthermore, the closed “app” experience gives content publishers a better mechanism to charge for the content. Where the unfettered Web experienced through a browser is almost universally free, “apps” tend to follow a freemium model: give away some of the content for free, but up-sell the full experience within the proprietary application. “Apps” offer the content creators a way to truly earn money from their work in a way that the “Web” resisted.

Anderson provided some compelling statistics to support this. Not only has there been an explosion of “Apps” on platforms such as the iPad and iPhone, but the proportion of US Internet Traffic used for the “Web” is 23%, roughly half of what it was 10 years ago.

Are we in the middle of an inflection point in the history of the Web? Is it “Dead” or is there something different going on? Tonight we explore this debate with you.

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ABOUT THE SPEAKERS

DAVE TAYLOR: Dave has been involved with the online world since 1980 and has helped shape the modern Internet. His career has included working as a research scientist at HP’s R&D Labs, contributing code to Berkeley Unix 4.4, building four startups, publishing twenty business and technical book, and writing thousands of articles. He current runs four blogs, including AskDaveTaylor.com focused on tech support, the film blog DaveOnFilm.com and The Business Blog @ Intuitive.com and also writes for the Boulder Daily Camera, Boulder Weekly and Linux Journal. Dave has a Bachelors in Computer Science from UCSD, a Masters in Education from Purdue and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. He’s @DaveTaylor on Twitter.

JOSH ZAPIN: Josh has spent over 15 years of developing interactive solutions, producing a wide range of solutions for companies as diverse as small start-ups to large Fortune 500 organizations.  Having spent tenures with such industry veterans Organic, Inc. and Agency.com during the Web “boom” of the 1990s, he more recently was a Senior Producer at Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, a billion-dollar advertising agency where he managed American Express’ OPEN Forum, one of the largest small-business sites on the Internet today.  He recently took a job as Crocs’ Director of Interactive Project Management.

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LINKS

Dave Taylor’s contact page: www.davetayloronline.com
Josh Zapin: www.jzapin.com

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DAVE TAYLOR and JOSH ZAPIN [panel discussion]

JOSH: What did the article say, and what is the “Web”? What is the technology of the web, what is driving innovation, and what is mobile? The web is undergoing a major change. More people are consuming information through applications. Netflix streams through an XBox, for example. Mobile devices have discrete applications. Are people searching less through search engines?

DAVE: Specialized search engines on Netflix or Facebook might make it less likely to go to Google.

JOSH: We’re using the web in different ways today, according to the article. The proportion of Internet traffic is changing. Web traffic is going down and is being displaced by things like streaming video (Netflix, Hulu) as a percentage of traffic. The web is defined as searching and reading web pages. Peer-to-peer and video are going up. A Youtube app on the iPhone is not considered web.

Q: So is it all about entertainment now?

JOSH: Well no one is actually saying that people are searching less–only proportionally it’s less.

Q: Because videos are bigger.

JOSH: Peer-to-peer includes things like Skype and bit torrent.

Q: Where is VOIP?

JOSH: I’m not sure if that’s “web” in the article.

Q: VOIP is still trivial compared to video in terms of traffic.

JOSH: Good point, it’s not about how much time people are spending. We’ll get to time in a moment.

Q: Is traffic here measured as packet quantity or packet size? Quantity might be a better way of estimating numbers of people.

DAVE: I look at the traffic graph as more scope than percentages. I bet the author doesn’t even know the answer to your question.

Q: The web isn’t dying, it’s just that a lot of other stuff is being born.

JOSH: More bandwidth is being consumed by non-web stuff. People are using more apps now instead of browsers. Blogging on the web from young people is falling. You want to reach people on Facebook or Twitter now, not blogs out on the open web.

Q: But blogging was just one way to present information, now its Facebook. Isn’t that web?

JOSH: Facebook represents the “closed” web, as distinct from open web blogs. Now the trend seems to be putting information in the closed web through Facebook and apps. The Internet “pie” is still growing, of course, and traffic overall is going up. It’s the new devices/apps, like boxy box, that are displacing traditional web, percentage-wise. But there’s probably something else going on. Boxy box is an open-source media device that competes with Apple TV.

DAVE: There’s also Google TV. New apps and gadgets are coming out almost daily.

JOSH: Engadget, gizmodo, and cnet review these devices.

DAVE: What’s the web in the first place? The web is just a pair of transmission protocols (http and html). Do you spend more time in your web browser? Well, in Google’s Chrome OS, they think maybe you don’t need anything other than a web browser. We aren’t consciously thinking we are in a browser. We’ve seen everything evolve into Adobe Flash, for example. But now there’s HTML5 trying to displace Flash. So we went away from the web to Flash, and now we’re coming back to it via HTML.

Without a really good transmission protocol, the Internet would break down. It’s amazingly complex and functional. But you need a good presentation layer. Sophisticated markup language makes it interesting. So is it about web transport or markup? This is a chicken-and-egg problem.

I think the traffic graph from the article is a bunch of BS. It’s easy to lie with graphics. The things appearing to decrease proportionally on the graph are actually all increasing together. This would suggest web is more and different stuff, not less.

Q: It’s gone from military to scientists to consumer. So that’s an expansion.

Q: Either bandwidth is diminishing or we have code bloat.

DAVE: Well, if you strip out the bells and whistles of Windows 7 it can run just fine on an old machine. Things always appear to stuff whatever space is available for them to fill to the bloating point.

We’ve had overall growth of Internet bandwidth usage of 50 percent per year. That’s huge, and it’s going to continue to grow.  But everything will increase in speed to accommodate the increased need.

Q: People have access to much greater bandwidth than before.

DAVE: Chris Anderson posits that everything is going to become free. But content creators want to eat. Borders Books is going out of business, and if everybody wants free the quality is going to go down. More doesn’t mean it’s better. There are tons of books getting published now, and a lot of them aren’t worth reading.

Q: There must be something in the middle where you have the advantages of open source with the capital mixed in.

DAVE: We’re getting into another bubble–startups are again not worrying about revenue. They are doing great open source stuff. So you can sell support services, etc., but there needs to be revenue streams. How is Netflix streaming all its content for practically nothing? How will the movie studios make money? They are scared of Netflix.

Q: If I make something free, I can sell the services for it. So companies can get revenue from open source. It’s always valuable to create knowledge.

DAVE: Consumers value content. People will pay for a Broadway show instead of seeing a free street performer because it’s better quality. I still buy books from bestselling authors. The free e-books is risky because I might waste time reading a crappy book. So I recognize that things that have a price tag often have more value. As a consultant, you charge your perceived value. Could be anything. Sarah Palin gets $100,000 per speech. This sets up attention against everything being free. Question is, is it worth paying for premium content over somewhat lower quality free stuff?

Q: What about the semantic web, where you get data that are in a pure form. Like bullet points from a article and sound-bites?

DAVE: That dissociates the information from its producer. The semantic web is really interesting, but what’s the perceived value?

Q: In the bioinformatics world, we have thousands of representations of information and no way to unify the points of view. Semantic standards would be really valuable there.

DAVE: And with Google is all about how to prioritize the information. Its a complicated problem.

Q: What about timeliness, like the real-time stock exchange services?

DAVE: In an effort to get timeliness, we now have Twitter as a news source. But a lot of disinformation can get retweeted. An egalitarian environment for news doesn’t really work.

So, web pages to iPad apps.  Apps generate revenue, and that’s good. Innovation is driven by revenue. And that’s the challenge of open source. Projects get dropped for lack of revenue. No one is paying directly for the development (even if you can sell services), and it doesn’t work well. The web will evolve as our sophisticated use grows. It’s still the web.

Q: Is the app “Web 3”?

DAVE: Yes. I remember when the internet was telnet, so I should know. Telnet was cool back then. It’s getting really sophisticated now.

App Growth = Internet Growth. The growth of iPad apps is huge and has created a new market.

Q: But open source is the basis of a lot of Apple’s stuff. It has clearly generated huge value.

DAVE: But open source programmers aren’t making any money from that stuff. I think open source developers, god bless them, are working “in the fields” and not at these companies making money. So that money isn’t spurning innovation. Linux still sucks, for example, and that’s why. The evolution from web to app connects the money to innovation better than the web did.

Now let’s consider the growth of mobile. You have high growth rates in Africa, where the only infrastructure is cell towers. Smart phones do anything a computer does. People are switching from computing to mobile: phones, iPads, laptops. Mobile bandwidth is increasing. Soon company servers will all be in the cloud and there won’t be anything but a bunch of laptops.

Q: Just because people are willing to pay for something doesn’t mean it has intrinsic value. The value is in the raw materials coming from the developers. This could just be a bubble.

DAVE: There’s formula for intrinsic value. You can’t just assign value to anything. It’s all perception.

Q: Money is a store of value. When money is attracted to something that’s where the value comes from.

DAVE: Chris Anderson didn’t get that our web browser becomes a more sophisticated tool. Web browsers have gained e-mail. Does that make Gmail an app? Microsoft Office is in the cloud, and you can get to it via the browser. Google docs is a free competitor to office, also browser-based.

Q: So Google is making money by giving away stuff for free.

DAVE: Yes, but that’s very difficult and rare.

Q: I don’t want my information in the cloud. I’m not comfortable with that because of security and privacy. But the cloud is really convenient. There must be a balance.

DAVE: Remember Google is not a public utility. It can do whatever it wants with your cloud information. Of course there’s a business motivation to do the right thing.

Q: Is there an interoperability committee for clouds?

DAVE: Not that I’m aware of.

Q: There is no standardization now, but that may come as people want it.

DAVE: There will always be incompatibilities at some levels.

JOSH: I see no one here believes the web is dead. But there is another aspect: Is the “open” web dead? The free stuff that’s not access-restricted in some way (behind a login) is open. People are spending more time on Facebook (closed) than Google (open) now.

Q: The object-oriented community has static vs. dynamic apps, and that’s a good analog.

JOSH: Consider the Great Wall of Facebook: Facebook is targeting Google because there’s more intrinsic value of searching within a trusted group than searching anonymously. You trust the results differently.

Open web probably isn’t dead. There’s still value in searching anonymously and semantically across the web. But maybe there will be less and less value in the open web as time goes on and we have better closed networks.

Q: It really depends on what you’re looking for.

JOSH: That’s true, the open web may always be superior for certain things, but for others, not necessarily.

DAVE: Google code search, for example, is designed for a specific thing that wouldn’t work with a general search. Google has tons of specialized search engines. That could take over from open searches.

Q: I think most of us have been on the free web today. Is it dying? Well, all of us in this room are dying, but we are also evolving. Technology accelerates life cycles. Movie studios are worried about Netflix, but remember they thought the VCR was going to wipe them out—and it turns out VCRs ended up saving them.

JOSH: I think our conclusion is “Evolution Does Not Equal Death.” I think this is an interesting semantic exercise. Remember Chris Anderson’s goal is to sell magazines. That’s why he wrote the article and titled it so provocatively.

Q: “Reports of the Web’s death have been greatly exaggerated!”

JOSH: Everything is growing, and everything is still necessary.

Q: What the web really killed was the encyclopedia. And Facebook killed high school reunions!

DAVE: Or the encyclopedia evolved to online.

Q: You bring in a technology that offers an advantage. The technology grows and the advantage grows. Then you don’t want to live without it. All people want is there stuff to get better. They want the web to get better.

DAVE: This is important, especially when you consider net neutrality.

Q: But the world doesn’t understand this stuff. They just want good global communication.

JOSH: A lot of content is going behind paywalls.

DAVE: Newspapers make their current open, then after a couple of days close it behind a paywall. That kind of makes sense.

Q: We are at an interesting point were most companies are getting wiser and wiser investment capital. Facebook is easy to duplicate.

DAVE: It’s not the Facebook software–it’s the user base that’s hard to duplicate. Facebook has the same vision as Google–get a lot of eyeballs and sell the ancillary stuff to them.

JOSH: Facebook could be making a lot on classified ads.

Q: Net neutrality: Can it coexist with the closed internet?

JOSH: I don’t think it’s related.

DAVE: I am willing to pay more for higher bandwidth; but I’d also pay to have my own traffic prioritized. That’s not neutral, but it’s valuable to me. Comcast could make money from that model.

Q: Content and crowdsourcing for profit: I’m resentful of people trying to make money off of my work without offering any money.

DAVE: Things are being ripped off incessantly. A lot of content producers don’t get paid. Now, Google did something where they dropped the aggregators in favor of the original sources, and that killed the aggregators. The Internet has had extraordinary ramifications on intellectual property and we still don’t know what it means.

Q: Offshoring of software projects: I hear China has duplicate products for all the American ones (Facebook, search, etc). What if China decides to screw everyone with their information?

DAVE: Could happen. Government-sponsored development could kill something like Facebook.

Q: If an app uses http, is it still the web?

JOSH: Not according to Chris Anderson.

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